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In 2008, when Hurricane Ike ravaged the Houston area, travel advisor Rey Alton of Almeda Travel, a Travel Leaders affiliate agency, was forced to close his storefront and run his business remotely. Nine years later, he found himself in the same predicament with Hurricane Harvey.
So, when the COVID-19 pandemic brought restrictions and social-distancing orders, Alton says he recalled his previous experiences to put a plan in place and swiftly moved his 10 storefront employees to home offices.
Alton is just one of the 108,000 advisors employed at some 15,000 retail travel agencies across the U.S., according to data from the American Society of Travel Advisors. And like many of his peers, Alton has found workarounds to continue running his office virtually during the coronavirus pandemic.
Other travel agency managers and owners have also stepped up to manage their teams remotely. Here, they share some top tips for adapting to a work-from-home environment.
Freeze Unnecessary UtilitiesTo save on expenses, Kristy Osborn, owner of a Travel Leaders agency in Loveland, Colo., turned off anything in her office that draws electricity or unnecessary heating power.
These tactics, among others, have allowed her to avoid cutting the salaries of her employees.
Vickie Everhart, manager for Krause Travel, also recommends that travel agencies forward all U.S. mail and package deliveries to an employee’s home.
“It takes longer for the mail to reach us, but because we aren’t receiving many checks at this time, the delay hasn’t been a problem,” she said.
Hire an Information Technology (IT) SpecialistAlmeda Travel’s Alton hired a third-party IT specialist, who helped transition and reconfigure the agency’s phone lines in addition to moving documents from the office’s server to a cloud-based storage service. Each employee was also given a Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phone that allows business calls to be made over a broadband internet connection.
Though the IT service can be pricey, it comes highly recommended by Alton.
“We don’t keep up with the technology ourselves, so having somebody on the outside makes a difference,” he said. “We also chose someone who specializes in small businesses compared to big business.”
Ensure Employees Have Access to High Internet BandwidthHigh-speed internet access is a priority for any remote work situation, especially if an agency is using a VoIP phone system, which can tie up the internet connection and slow things down.
Alton works one-on-one with his employees to shop around for the best deals from a variety of internet providers in his area. Meanwhile, Vickie Everhart, manager of Krouse Travel, supplies her staff with laptops and high-speed internet.
“Give your team the best possible tools to work,” she said. “Add in plenty of supplies, so your staff isn’t just ‘making do’ with what they have around the house.
Adaptability is the single most-required skill in my experience, second only to resiliency. Both of these things are being put to the test every single day, even when the sun is shining and everything is going well.
Frequently Check in With StaffIn moments of crisis, it’s important to show empathy for each employee’s unique situation, according to Alton.
“You don’t know what people are dealing with while being at home all the time,” he said. “When people come to work, that may be their relief from being at home. So, I check in with everyone every day to see how they’re doing.”
Wendy Burk, CEO of La Jolla, Calif.-based Cadence Travel, hosts video townhall meetings for the company once per week, in addition to catching up with employees over video chat, through instant messaging or on the phone.
“I didn’t realize how much I need daily interactions with people, how much impact we had on each other and how often we would have spontaneous conversations in the hallways, the kitchen or just when people popped into my office,” she said. “Many of those lead to meaningful moments, or the sharing of new ideas. Social interaction is something we take for granted because it’s instinctual for us. After the first few weeks we found our rhythm, and it involved bringing back as much conversation as we could — planned or even unplanned.”
In addition to weekly virtual happy hours on Fridays, Krouse Travel’s Everhart asks her staff to share “daily positives” via email at the end of each workday. In those emails, staff members share client testimonials, success stories about rebooking travel or examples of “winning the fight” to get a refund when a supplier was initially only offering vouchers of travel credits.
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Use Creative Methods to Inform Your Clients When Everhart closed the doors to her brick-and-mortar storefront, she ran ads in her local newspapers and on social media to alert her clientele.
In addition to announcing the office’s closure, the colorful advertisement listed a working phone number and an email address to reach a member of her team, the agency’s hours of operation and a message of assurance that she will continue to sell travel at this time. It read: “Thank you for your patience as we re-accommodate clients who are affected by travel bans. We are accepting new travel requests and appreciate the opportunity to assist with your travel plans.”
Embrace New Technology and ToolsLearning the technology available to you and your team is vital in making a smooth transition to working remotely, according to Jay Johnson, president of Garden Grove, Calif.-based Coastline Travel Advisors, who believes there are many tools that can keep staff efficiency at the same level — or even higher — than before.
Johnson says he has been especially happy with Microsoft Teams as a communications and document-sharing platform and Zoom as a video-conferencing platform for connecting with independent contractors.
“We’ll continue to use Teams in the future,” he said. “We have eight branches in the U.S., so mastering Teams has been a huge plus in communicating with the other branches, as well as those working from home. It’s been amazing. We can share documents, have video chats and take part in virtual happy hours.”
Be Prepared for More Change AheadAlthough none of these advisors could have foreseen the lengths they would have to go to during this crisis, many agreed that they will take the lessons learned into the future of their businesses.
“I think working remotely is the way of the future,” Alton said. “Even the way we look at retail spaces is going to be different than how we did before. People should really embrace it.”
Cadence Travel’s Burk agrees.
“Adaptability is the single most-required skill in my experience, second only to resiliency,” she said. “Both of these things are being put to the test every single day, even when the sun is shining and everything is going well. Be prepared, but be ready for change, and be open to it when it comes — because it will.”
The DetailsAlmeda Travelwww.almedatravel.com
Coastline Travel Advisorswww.coastlinetravel.com
Read more from TravelAge West about the COVID-19 outbreak.