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As the coronavirus pandemic continues to wreak havoc on the retail travel industry, brick-and-mortar agencies face dual challenges: a painful drop in travel bookings as well as the temporary closure of the storefront locations that normally help drive business. But many managers are finding creative ways to maintain visibility in today’s decidedly different marketplace.
“Having to close down our two leisure offices has affected our ability to service potential new clients, but we are adapting by being more aggressive through digital marketing and social media,” said Leslie Bramlett, president of El Sol Travel Leaders in Tempe, Ariz.
Even the few storefront agencies that remain open are rethinking their strategy, says Angela Hedges Hendricks, co-owner and president at Bentley Hedges Travel, a Travel Leaders agency, in Oklahoma City.
We have a sign on the front of our business that we are open and to contact us with each advisor’s extension and email, and that we have curbside brochure delivery.
“We haven’t actually closed our location, but beginning March 23, we encouraged our agents to begin working remotely when the president and our governor directed everyone to stay home,” she said. “No clients have come into our office since March 23. We have a sign on the front of our business that we are open and to contact us with each advisor’s extension and email, and that we have curbside brochure delivery.”
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Staying VisibleCommunication is crucial for storefront agencies looking to stay top of mind with current and potential clients.
Paul Salamone, a travel consultant at Spark Destinations and Paul’s Worldwide Adventures in Houston, Texas, has upped his efforts to stay in touch to make up for the lack of a physical agency.
“We are reaching out and advising clients that we remain available for them,” he said.
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Mike Salvadore, owner of 58 Stars Travel, a Travel Leaders agency, in Kenmore, Wash., has modified his marketing message to match today’s reality.
“We’ve created special newsletters that have gone out to our client database, letting them know that we are here for them whenever they have questions,” he said. “We also have continued to present a ‘Keep Dreaming About Travel’ marketing message via social media that includes special Instagram and Facebook stories and posts. In addition, we’ve been changing the message on our reader board at our physical location to keep up with how the daily news is continuously changing.”
Delivering relevant content is also a goal for Jeff Cain, senior vice president, specialty divisions at Travel and Transport, which owns multiple agency brands with a physical presence, including Travel Design Lounge in Omaha, Neb.
We’ve been changing the message on our reader board at our physical location to keep up with how the daily news is continuously changing.
“Advisors are increasing communication with their clients,” he said. “Not to sell them travel, but with tips, like how to relax at home. The first month of this [pandemic] was just about getting customers handled. But now, with some of the marketing we’re doing, we’re keeping the dream of travel alive — keeping clients engaged, sending them information.”
A similar tactic works well for Gary Spears, CFO of Spears Travel, a Travel Leaders agency, which has storefront locations in Bartlesville and Tulsa, Okla.
“Our advisors continue to reach out proactively to clients and answer their calls and emails regarding any booking questions or needs they may have, just as we usually would do,” he said. “We don’t think it’s time to pull the trigger on promotions, but we’ll be ready when that happens.”
Valuable PartnershipsMembership in an agency consortium and other organizations can be especially helpful during times like this. Bramlett, for example, makes use of marketing content provided through her affiliation with Travel Leaders.
“We recently started sending clients the Armchair Explorer series available to us from Travel Leaders,” she said. “It’s a series of emails with articles and virtual tours to help travelers continue to dream about travel until they can travel again.”
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Consortium membership has also helped Caroline Reinhard-Chacon, owner and manager of a Travel Leaders associate agency in Montebello, Calif.
“They make all kinds of resources and seminars available for us,” she said. “We also still have our online agent profiles on Travel Leaders, and our Google listings and Yelp listings, and a little bit on Facebook.”
Agencies can find help in a variety of places. Travel and Transport’s Cain says his company relies on Virtuoso for marketing content, while Kathy Takushi, owner and manager of Captivating Journeys in Wailuku, Hawaii, has found support through her affiliation with Ensemble as well as participation on the board of the ASTA Hawaii chapter.
For Paula Hobble, president of Focus on Travel in Beaverton, Ore., ASTA and the Western Association of Travel Agents (WESTA) have been effective allies.
“ASTA and WESTA allow us to share experiences, get training while [business] is slower and keep us informed about industry and business developments,” she said.
Return to NormalTakushi foresees a resurgence in the popularity of storefront agencies once the pandemic ends.
“Once this is all over, I think we will have more in-person business,” she said. “People will be craving that one-on-one personal touch even more than before. Now that I have the luxury of time to look really closely at my business model, I’m creating systems so that we can work more efficiently and can give our clients an even better experience.”
Once this is all over, I think we will have more in-person business. People will be craving that one-on-one personal touch even more than before.
Alternative versions of the storefront agency concept will likely do better in the future, predicts Cain, whose Travel Design Lounge features a bar and a regular schedule of social and informational events such as sponsored wine tastings.
“As we look to the future for when we come out of this, we probably wouldn’t open another traditional brick-and-mortar business,” he said. “We’d go more for the Travel Design Lounge concept — something different and unique.”
Evolution, of course, is only natural for any business model.
“Agencies that are only using their brick-and-mortar presence to sell travel are a thing of the past,” Salvadore said. “Our business will grow with a robust online strategy, while utilizing the brick-and-mortar space for those opportunities to get deeper connections with suppliers as well as our top clients.”
Read more from TravelAge West about the COVID-19 outbreak.