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Business models for travel agencies have always been unique — but what they typically have in common is an emphasis on serving the client. The COVID-19 (coronavirus disease 2019) crisis has tested travel advisors’ creativity and ability to adapt, all while showcasing how well they treat their clients even when times are tough.
We’ve been inspired by the quick and empathetic actions of advisors interviewed in our current series, which explores how their businesses have been affected by the coronavirus. (Catch up on part one, part two and part three.)
In our fourth installment of our series, we hear from Daniela Harrison, a travel consultant and director of marketing at Avenues of the World Travel in Flagstaff, Ariz., and a member of TravelAge West’s Agent Advisory Board.
Harrison offers insights into how her brick-and-mortar agency is adapting to working from home while still being present for clients, and how to focus on gains rather than losses during these challenging times.
As an employee at a brick-and-mortar agency, what’s been the biggest change in your day to day?The biggest change we are currently undergoing is in the way we work. We’ve implemented spring break hours throughout March and are keeping the office doors open for clients who need to see us face to face. Some just need reassurance that we are there for them and are not going anywhere. To keep exposure to a minimum, we are working with a skeleton staff. All of us are adapting to working from home day for half the day, and then switching off to staff the office for the other half of the day.
By doing this, we are available from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday, but we’re not all in the office at the same time. As a brick-and-mortar agency, this is a big change for us. We are learning a lot from our independent contractor friends right now in terms of organization, remote login systems, call forwarding and the self-control and discipline it takes to work from home.
How busy is your staff right now?We absolutely do not have more free time. If anything, we have less time. Our standard schedule is usually 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, but we’ve been working overtime for a solid two weeks now, including weekends.
Our increased workload is due to unusually long hold times; everchanging cancellation policies; emergency evacuations of clients before borders and airports close; managing existing clients’ concerns and expectations; and addressing necessary trip change dates. We’re also responding to phone calls from consumers who have never used a travel advisor before, but need help because they booked direct and cannot get through to airlines or tour operators.
We are still working on new bookings at the same time. Spring 2021 all the way into spring 2022 is active, and people are adapting to plan further ahead.
Instead of looking at all the money lost, and all the time spent on hold, keep track of how many clients you are retaining.
I did start some overdue webinars and supplier update trainings while being stuck on hold for multiple hours. It’s a great time to accomplish some of our certification updates.
What are some measures that the agency is taking?We ran the numbers, and we know that we’ll be fine as a business. Our agency was around for 9/11, Ebola, SARS and Zika. We've seen drastic drops in business before — however, nothing of this magnitude. We are as prepared as we can be.
Our focus right now is keeping clients in the loop about their specific departures and preparing for the wave of incoming requests once the COVID-19 crisis starts to die down. We have cut back on our non-essential marketing for the next few months and made some other cuts to keep expenses down.
What are you personally anxious about?As an advisor working on only commission, of course I am anxious about my livelihood. Spending endless hours on cancellations, date changes and calming clients — and not getting close to the normal volume of new bookings — is scary. It’s not today’s cancellations and postponements that cause me anxiety; it’s the lasting effects of possibly reduced commission levels for the next two to three years as clients redeem their future travel vouchers and shop for recovery sales.
How are you mitigating those anxieties? Personally, I try to focus on customer service. As travelers are getting blown off by online travel agencies and some larger wholesalers, the best thing we can do right now is wow them with empathy and our strong personalized service. I've been crying with clients whose trips have gotten canceled because they have been planning it for more than two years. They know how strongly we feel for them and how sad we are for them. They know it’s not about the money.
I just got the best compliment from clients I had to evacuate from Ecuador. They said, “We are so thankful to have you on our side. We didn’t think it was as bad as you made it sound — until we arrived at the airport. I don't know how you managed to get us seats on a flight tonight, but we are so grateful for all you do. You are priceless! We cannot wait to call you to rebook our visit once things calm down. Thank you!”
Many clients have called or emailed just to say hi, check in on us and let us know that they are not planning anything today, but that they will call us as soon as they are ready.
Have most clients postponed, or are many canceling?Most clients opted to postpone travel to the fall or for 2021. The big cancellations we had are because suppliers are pausing operations until end of April or mid-May.
Are there any changes to the destinations of their future trips, such as opting for domestic trips instead of international?Most everybody so far rebooked the same trip for a later date. We have not seen an increased request for domestic travel yet.
Are suppliers going above and beyond to work with you and your clients during this period?COVID-19 is teaching us a lot of new things, and the most important one is the value of good advisor-supplier relationships. We are so thankful for all our supplier partners that are putting in as many hours as we do to help us keep clients happy and retain them for future travel.
Our preferred suppliers have mostly been easy to work with and have kept us in the loop on what’s going on and how they are handling each departure. Our BDMs have been absolute champions and have replied quickly and efficiently.
Are clients panicking? If so, what methods have you found to be effective in calming them down? Any go-to phrases or talking points?Most clients are surprisingly calm. Of course, there are a few who require daily reassurance. But, for the most part, our travelers trust us and know that we are doing everything we can for them.
We composed our own call sheets and replies so the entire office uses the exact same verbiage and advice, which has been tremendously helpful. We have answers for people asking general questions, as well as for travelers with departures in the next week, in two weeks, in a month, in summer, in fall and in winter. By doing this, we can focus on emergency cases departing in the next 14 days while keeping remaining clients happy and considered.
What advice do you have to fellow advisors who may be struggling right now? As hard as it is, don’t focus on the losses. Instead of looking at all the money lost, and all the time spent on hold, keep track of how many clients you are retaining.
How many travelers are thanking you for assisting them with issues they couldn’t have solved themselves? How many have reached out to you to see if you are okay? Remember, you are their hero in times of crisis, and, once it’s all over, they will remember who took care of them when they needed it most.