Discussion topics ranged from business models and technology tools to marketing plans and social media use. // © 2017 Jim Harris
Feature image (above): Eight GTM West agents shared their tips for building a booming business. // © 2017 Getty Images
Establishing a lucrative career as a travel advisor is no easy task — so say some of the top professionals in the biz.
Does specialization lead to trip-planning expertise? What should be in an agent’s technology toolbox? And, perhaps most importantly, what relationships need to be formed to ensure a fruitful career?
We tackled these and other topics during a roundtable discussion with eight “million-dollar agents” at the 2017 Global Travel Marketplace West (GTM West) conference at The Westin Lake Las Vegas Resort & Spa on May 18. To qualify for the annual event — which is hosted by Northstar Travel Group’s TravelAge West and Travel Weekly publications — an agent must be an owner of a multimillion-dollar agency or have reported at least $800,000 in individual earnings.
Joining the discussion were Susie Adair of Adair to Travel; Danny Genung of Harr Travel; Eric Goldring of Goldring Travel; Darcy Lard of Flathead Travel Service; Beci Mahnken of MEI-Travel & Mouse Fan Travel; Bob Papkin of Bob’s Ultimate Travel; Teresa Shields of Engage Vacations; and Melissa Ulrich of Trips to the Mouse.
A Foot in the Door
In 2014, the Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasted a 12 percent dip in the number of travel agent jobs — a decline that is projected to continue through 2024. Despite this unsettling forecast, research firm MMGY Global reported last year that agent usage is at a six-year high.
So, who is the ideal candidate to take on this growing consumer demand?
Hobbyists, beware: Our GTM West advisors agreed that a career as a travel agent is about more than the glitz and glamour of a life on the road.
“Most new agents I meet have traveled, so they think they understand travel,” said Genung of Harr Travel. “But the business of travel has very little to do with traveling. You have to be a salesperson first, not a traveler.”
This “business of travel” may include 2 a.m. wake-up calls from clients who are halfway across the globe; continuing education courses to keep destination and supplier knowledge fresh; the task of keeping an up-to-date, detailed client database; and establishing a marketing and business plan even before the first booking is made.
That’s not to say that advisors don’t spend time exploring the world. Hosted fam trips or hotel stays are common, but they don’t equate to a “free vacation,” warns Goldring of Goldring Travel.
“Now, we’re investing in actually going places — and it’s work,” he said. “If you’ve been to a Westin, for example, you know what the Westin product is. So maybe even if you haven’t been to a Westin in New York, you still have an idea of what the product will be.”
“I think it’s critical to prioritize education from the moment you jump into the industry, as products are changing fast,” added Ulrich of Trips to the Mouse. “The very first year is the best to travel, learn and be a sponge.”
She cites programs from The Travel Institute as an especially good resource for new agents.
Another piece of advice? Don’t expect to turn a profit — at least not immediately.
“Don’t just chase a commission,” Goldring said. “When you’re starting out, that’s when you learn. Education is an expense; it’s an investment of your time. When you do that, you can grow and figure out what model works for you.”
Although many GTM West advisors — Goldring included — are self-employed, Ulrich says industry newbies might find their start by working as an employee or an independent contractor (IC) at a well-established agency.
When she vets these potential hires for her own agency, she says, candidates who are passionate, articulate and well-connected attract her attention.
“I don’t waste time doing phone interviews at the beginning,” she said. “I ask them a question and have them send me a video to answer it because I want to see how they present themselves. This weeds out 90 percent of the prospects.”
Mahnken of MEI-Travel & Mouse Fan Travel also uses video interviews, along with an application and questionnaire. Her agency evaluates 100 to 200 applications from ICs each quarter. From that, only 20 are hired.
“We try to trip them up during the process,” she said. “How they express themselves in an email is a whole different way than how they talk on the phone. We’ll see if they can catch the issues.”
Find Your Niche and Partner Up
When choosing a specialization, focusing on one or two destinations or travel types has led to a hefty boost in business for the agents at our GTM West roundtable.
“I knew I wanted to specialize in Disney because I was passionate about it,” said Mahnken, whose Mouse Fan Travel brand focuses exclusively on Disney vacations. “I loved the thing I was going after, and I thought I could possibly turn it into a business. That’s the key. If you love something, you can sell it.”
Ulrich is also a Disney Specialist, while Goldring focuses on luxury cruising — he is Seabourn Cruise Line’s No. 1 producer.
“If you don’t specialize, you’re going to be all over the board,” said Papkin of Bob’s Ultimate Travel. “You’re going to know a little about a lot, but you’re really going to know nothing. But if you specialize early, then you’re going to be the expert, and people will come to you.”
But perhaps even more important than specialization is investing in long-lasting and mutually beneficial connections with clients, says Lard of Flathead Travel Service, the largest and oldest travel agency in Montana.
“One of the most valuable things I was taught is about relationships,” she said. “Relationships drive business, whether it’s with your vendor or with your clients. Build that relationship, because it makes your business stronger.”
“And think about who your ideal client is,” added Shields of Engage Vacations. “Do you want to be known as the person who posts deals all the time, and gets those kinds of clients, or do you want clients who are interested in luxury vacations? Be thoughtful about who you want to work with.”
And don’t judge people based on one interaction, Mahnken says, recalling an instance where she booked a first-time client for one night in a moderately priced hotel. Although she didn’t earn much from that single reservation, the client returned six months later with a new request: Reserve all the suites at Mexico’s Fairmont Mayakoba over Christmas — a booking that led to a $250,000 sale.
Connections with suppliers and agent-resource groups are valuable, too.
All the advisors mentioned in this article are members of host agencies or consortia. They say that in addition to providing marketing and educational tools, these organizations help weed out unreliable suppliers.
“We can’t possibly know the stability of every single supplier everywhere,” said Mahnken, who is a member of Ensemble Travel Group. “If something goes horribly wrong due to a supplier, we have the eyes and ears of the consortium, who will rethink that relationship.”
Because there are so many consortia and host agencies to choose from, Goldring, who is also a member of Ensemble, says it’s important to do extensive research to find the right fit.
“Consortia are crucial — they give so much more power and leverage on so many things,” he said. “Each one has a different philosophy. Some say, ‘We’re going to make you part of our brand,’ while some are about marketing the individual and his or her brand.”
Genung, who is a member of host agency Nexion and the Travel Leaders consortium, praises the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) as an organization that agents should align with.
“When you get into the business, it’s about the contacts you have,” he said. “ASTA is the only place our rights are being fought for, and my pocketbook is better for it.”
Events that match advisors with suppliers — such as Northstar Travel Group’s GTM and GTM West conferences — are also crucial for relationship building and networking.
“You have to show up to events like these,” Genung said. “We all know that most relationships happen here, whether it be by talking to the people you saw in a boardroom presentation or someone you had a drink with at the bar.”
Time to Get Social
How has technology changed the role of the professional travel advisor?
Our GTM West agents gave mixed reviews on the effectiveness of social media for marketing purposes. One advisor says he hasn’t gotten a single booking from social media outreach but sees a better return on investment from his blog, while another estimates that 75 to 80 percent of her marketing is done through various social media channels.
Despite these differences, all participants agreed that advisors should have some online presence.
When it comes to social media, Adair of Adair to Travel often engages with her clients on Facebook, saying that it helps if “clients feel like they know you.”
“A lot of my clients friend request me and I accept it, because now they are my friend,” she said. “But whether it’s something personal that’s going on or it’s something about business, it’s important to be really thoughtful about what you post on social media.”
Engage Vacations’ Shields agrees, saying she will snag any opportunity to connect online.
“Most clients are no more than one or two degrees of separation from me anyway,” she said. “If I want to go out for Mexican food in Austin, Texas, I might put out a post asking for recommendations even though I could go on Yelp and read reviews.”
Disney specialist Mahnken takes social media outreach even further — she promotes her business with podcasts, in addition to outreach on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and YouTube.
“The only way social media plays correctly for you is if the content is organic and it’s from your eyes,” she said. “Just posting something isn’t going to return investment immediately. It happens over time.”
Genung guarantees this return on investment by charging a retainer fee for first-time Harr Travel customers who come from social media, and he believes it has been essential for attracting his elusive peer group: the millennials.
“I try to stay in front of people constantly, and social media is how I get vetted by them,” he said. “Millennials are status-driven. A friend posted on Facebook and asked, ‘Where should I go?’ and within 10 minutes, there were 20 resorts listed by all his friends, so I popped in there and told him to give me a call.”
Mahnken has also seen an uptick in millennial bookings due to social media, but other agents at the discussion revealed that this generation isn’t contributing much to their bottom line.
When pressed on whether technology can pose a threat to agents, Genung noted that it’s important for advisors to continually learn about new offerings.
“There’s still a class of travel agents getting by without technology now, and I personally think that’s going to go away in the next five years,” he said. “They’re going to retire and move on when they don’t want to learn anymore.”
He also predicts that booking “bots” that connect travelers with preferred suppliers based on their internet history and online shopping preferences will become mainstream within the next few years. But while this tool directly competes with a traditional advisor, he doesn’t see it making up for the personal service an agent provides.
“Technology has diminishing returns after a certain point, and personal service has diminishing returns after a certain point,” he said. “It’s finding that perfect balance of both. For me, it’s about getting ahead of that and using the technology correctly from the start.”
As the roundtable discussion wrapped up, several advisors shared personal anecdotes, tips for success and best practices with one another.
“What we’ve heard here is, ‘What works for you may not work for me,’” Shields said. “Even though we are technically competitors, we can learn from each other, and that makes our name as travel agents better. And it reinforces how valuable travel agents are.”
“If everything is booked through on-the-ground or smaller agencies, our power grows,” Genung added. “There’s plenty for everybody, so treat other agents how you would treat your clients. We all rise together; we all sink together.”