Booking group sales often requires hard work, but agents say seeing clients happy is the ultimate reward. // © 2016 iStock
Speak to any number of travel agents who specialize in group sales, and you’re bound to hear a common thread in their tales: Booking groups is hard work.
Not that they’re complaining. On the contrary, travel agents are likely to say that the time and effort required in their work leads to greater personal satisfaction. For so many agents, the ultimate reward is seeing clients come home happy.
But back to the hard work. Like rock climbers, no group sales agent reaches her peak on day one. She starts at the beginning, improving her skills one task at a time until something larger finally seems surmountable.
The following travel agents did just that. They all began selling leisure travel on a smaller scale, until one day, with loads of experience under their belts, they saw a tremendous mountain and decided to climb it. Below are their pointers for those interested in taking a similar route.
Lauren Liebert of Ticket to Travel in Mountain View, Calif., has been working in the industry for 12 years, and though she shies away from destination weddings — she says there are often too many tears involved — that’s exactly the kind of trip that reminded her of the power of relationships.
It happened like this: After booking a Silicon Valley couple’s travel for about eight years, the clients requested a lunch date with Liebert. Over the course of the meal, an enormous job was placed in her hands: to organize a nearly all-expenses-paid wedding weekend in Venice, Italy, for 25 people and a miniature poodle.
What followed was a yearlong extravaganza of phone calls about rooms at Belmond Hotel Cipriani, a gondola procession and a cocktail party onboard a pirate ship. Liebert also worked with Abercrombie & Kent, the client’s preferred operator, to arrange private transfers and sightseeing excursions for wedding guests, including tours of the Venetian islands of Murano and Burano. Though she remained stateside, Liebert kept track of her party at all times and even altered her sleep schedule in order to field any necessary calls for assistance.
“My past experience with this client was the key to success,” Liebert said. “To make a group experience great, you need to have a relationship with at least one person in that group, if not more. Then, reach out to everyone else.”
Lead the Way
One conversation with industry veteran Debra Kerper of Cruise Planners, and it’s clear that she’s both a travel agent and an activist. As a member of the disabled community herself, Kerper has become a recognized advocate for accessible travel — she was even asked to be a member of Royal Caribbean International’s Disability Advisory Board.
Kerper is also the founder of Easy Access Travel, which specializes in cruises and package tours for people with disabilities and their families. Her group bookings for this market increased through her professional event participation.
Several years ago, she spoke at a conference targeting the amputee community, and an attendee shared that his longtime dream was to go on a cruise with other amputees — a vacation where similar people could gather and not be self-conscious. Kerper happily took the lead on his wish, booking 112 people on the first cruise for amputees. Not long after that, Kerper connected with a mother whose child had spina bifida. That relationship resulted in a cruise for 57 young adults with the same condition.
Kerper believes she has had so many repeat clients from these cruises partially because she escorts groups herself. It’s the ideal situation, she says — whenever an issue arises, she’s there to troubleshoot and get things back on track. That kind of attention is what makes her clients thrilled to travel with her again and again.
“Every time I take a group out, I feel like I’m going to Disneyland,” Kerper said. “Their joy truly is my joy. We never dwell on what the group can’t do — it’s all about what we can do. Magic happens on these trips. They understand each other’s challenges, and they get to see what vibrant lives they all lead.”
Pursue a Passion
Since opening in 1957, Harmon Travel in Boise, Idaho, has catered to groups. The agency sold mainly motorcoach tours in the beginning, but in the 1990s, it jumped on the themed-cruise bandwagon, working with now-gone Royal Cruise Lines on what were mostly music-centric itineraries for mature travelers.
After a series of curveballs — Royal was bought by Norwegian Cruise Line, which continued themed cruises for about 10 years — agent Tammy Selee needed to find a new company in order to keep Harmon Travel’s extremely popular ’60s rock cruise going.
Selee says she knocked on the door of every cruise line, and almost all of them passed on the opportunity. She kept at it, though, until Costa Cruises agreed to partner up. That’s when she helped launch Concerts at Sea, part of Harmon Travel. At its peak on Costa, Concerts at Sea drew as many as 1,000 passengers. It has now been working with Princess Cruises for the last six years. The product’s repeat client rate says it all: About 40 percent of guests have gone on 10 or more cruises, listening to tunes from artists such as Paul Revere’s Raiders, Mitch Ryder and Gary Lewis.
“It’s very humbling to see people come together through a common interest,” Selee said. “These cruises start to become like family reunions. And there are lot of themes you can be successful with, so long as you focus on something you’re passionate about.”