Part 1 of 2 on what travel advisors say is the biggest issue in the industry. Follow us next week for Part 2, as suppliers respond.
Angela Hughes is feeling lucky that her $2 million in personal annual sales allows her to hire a team of assistants. She uses them to hold the phone for her—often for hours at a clip—when she needs to call a supplier.
“Right now I’m trying to close a group of 50 for 2023—but I can’t get any space, and we have four-hour wait times to boot,” she says. “So I pay an assistant to sit on hold all day every day. It helps me earn a lot more revenue. But I can’t get over the inefficiency of the tour companies that makes it necessary.”
Hughes is passionate on the subject these days, she says. “I’m only using suppliers who help us—and if that means I have to move away from preferred suppliers, so be it. I’m moving all my tour clients over to Globus because they answer quickly. I dread that I ever booked a group to Club Med—I waited six hours on the phone one day, and then my client got up at 5 am and called them herself. So I said okay, goodbye Club Med, off my list.”
Hughes’s assistants book their own business as well; one is an IC she hired to do some technology work. Then she started paying her by the hour to do other things “and now I can’t live without her,” she says. “I’m always the face to the client, the one who emails them, but if we need to make a payment or a change or get a quote from Disney, she does it for me.”
In a business where a quick response is key to customer service, 48 hours is too long for them to wait, Hughes says. “What good is an agent, if you can’t deliver quickly? They’ll go out and do it themselves. I had a 79-year-old client on a $22,000 river cruise known for good service who didn’t get picked up for her airport transfer; there was no rep at the hotel for the post-trip, no Covid testing available, no one to answer the phone. It’s just impossible. Finally she went to the Viking desk at the hotel and they helped her, even though she was not a customer.
“So I’m going to be a lot more selective about whom I use. I am going to make sure I meet my clients’ expectations.”
Still, changing suppliers is easier said than done. “I’m having good luck with Globus and Classic Vacations, so yes, I am using them more than in the past. But it’s not that simple. If the client wants Royal Caribbean, I can’t say ‘you have to book NCL,’ ” says Helen Prochilo of Promal Vacations.
And if you are considering a change, says Toni Day of Adventures With Toni Tours, take the opportunity to move upscale. “I am shifting my business to high-end suppliers who have a much better response time. I’m done with supplier commissions that don’t have a comma in them.”
Tricks of the Trade
Where there’s a will, though, there’s a travel advisor finding a way.
Call suppliers the minute they open, says Vicki Briggs of Briggs World Travel; “I refuse to waste more than three hours on hold.” Agrees Janet Blackwel of Tidewater Cruise and Travel LLC, “I call as soon as the supplier opens. If they open at 9, I have the number entered in my phone by 8:59 and when the clock strikes 9, I hit the call button. This may only work for one call a day, but it helps.”
Taking the opposite approach, Ricki le Vine of Cruising with Ricki “often waits until close to closing to call. There seems to be less of a wait.”
Lauren Cardinale of Travel Design Co. in New Orleans starts her day by calling the suppliers have callback options to get in their queue. “Then I use a landline or my husband or kid’s cellphone to call the ones that require actual holding. Then I just pray that two don’t pick up at once.”
And if they do, “I’ve had my kids talk to them and ask them to hold.”
Sharon Copas of Coastline Travel in California lucked out when she called Trafalgar on a Saturday morning and got right through. “I was told agents don’t know we’re open on Saturday,” she says, so now she always calls then.
Many use multiple phone lines—and that’s easier if you have a storefront, says Bernice Bakley of Huntley Travel. But “the trick is to remember which one to hang up when you finish a call. I’m sure my cries could be heard miles away when I have mistakenly disconnected the wrong line.”
To that end, Lu Maggiora of Travel Adventures Unlimited puts a sticky note next to the phone with the name of the supplier and the client she is calling about, “so when they finally pick up five hours later, I haven’t forgotten who and why I called in the first place!”
Keri O’Neill Tice of Enticing Vacations/FROSCH Mann Travels has hired a college student as an intern to hold on for her; Trapper Martin of Dream Vacations Trapper Martin, Shane Smartt & Associates suggests a few advisors band together to have one hold on each day and represent the group when they get through.
Janet Blackwell of Tidewater Cruise and Travel suggests always being upfront with clients about the issues all travelers and advisors face these days. If it’s not urgent, she tells clients, “I will want to call the supplier first thing when they open, in order to avoid long wait times that are measured in hours. I already have a call to make tomorrow, so I’ll call Supplier X for you on Friday.” Most clients are very understanding and are just thankful they don’t have to sit on hold themselves, she says.
And Mollie Knowles Ward at Troubadour Travel got a Google Pixel 6 phone for its “Hold for me” feature that beeps when a person answers after you have been put on hold.
The Supplier Side
Suppliers say they are doing their best to keep up these days, as a sudden huge wave of travelers runs headlong into with the lowest unemployment rate in US history. They are hiring as fast as they can, they say, but training takes a little time.
For travel advisors, it’s not coming quickly enough. How about just adding a call-back option so TAs don’t have to sit on the phone, suggests Nina Sherman at Lada Travel? Or better music? Says Premiere Travel Planners’ Deb Clark, “I wouldn’t mind the hold time as much if the suppliers would just play soft music instead of interrupting the music every minute to give an announcement. If it was just music, it would make it easier to multi task.”
And for some, it’s just one more reason to rethink being in the business at all.
“It’s the biggest impediment to me doing my job,” says Prochilo. “I stopped taking new clients and am turning away bookings because I can’t do my job properly if I have to call a supplier. I’m thinking of opening another business mentoring agents; I like doing that better than selling travel at this point. And I wouldn’t have to worry about phone calls in the middle of the night from clients who have an emergency.”
Cheryl’s 40-year career in journalism is bookended by roles in the travel industry, including Executive Editor of Business Travel News in the 1990s, and recently, Editor in Chief of Travel Market Report and admin of Cheryl Rosen’s Group for Travel Professionals, a news and support group on Facebook.
As an independent contractor since retiring from the 9-to-5 to travel more, she has written regular articles about the life and business of travel agents for Luxury Travel Advisor, Travel Agent and Insider Travel Report. She also writes and edits for professional publications in the financial services, business and technology sectors.