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One day, the COVID-19 pandemic will be over, and clients will want to travel. They will remember how valuable their travel advisors were in their time of need — and advisors will be swamped with bookings.
Hopefully, this day will come sooner than we expect, and we need to start preparing for that moment now.
Traveling and talking about travel are essential components of a travel professional’s livelihood. But for many of us who have worked hard to make travel a part of our lifestyle, these actions are closely attached to our emotional well-being, too.
At the third-annual Future Leaders in Travel Retreat, which took place Aug. 31 to Sept. 2, we gave ourselves permission to discuss and dream about travel — and to be joyful, strategic and prepared when it came to imagining a sunnier future for our careers.
The backbone of building back better is a strong professional community. While the future is bright, it’s not going to be without challenges. Finding “Strength in Community”— this year’s event theme — is an escape from the trials and tribulations of this year, and a guiding light for the path forward.
While this year’s event was virtual — and included small-group meetings hosted by partners such as Tourism Australia — the emphasis was once again placed on connecting advisors and suppliers. Attendees actively engaged with content facilitators who shared actionable steps to improve individual businesses and the greater industry.
Suppliers and advisors left the three-day event more enthusiastic, hopeful and motivated about their businesses than when they arrived. Below, we share our top takeaways from this year’s editorial content in hopes that the following advice makes you optimistic about the future of your business, too.
— Mindy Poder
There’s No “I” in TeamTravel advisors and suppliers are part of the same team, and transparency allows a team to move forward in service to the client.
That was the consensus between Kate Thomas, owner of FIT operator North & Leisure, and Heather Christopher, president of Heather Christopher Travel Consulting, during a think tank on how the advisor/supplier relationship is evolving due to the pandemic. (The duo also co-founded the TravelPro Theory podcast.)
More than half of advisor attendees shared that between 51% to 80% of their supplier partners communicated with transparency during the pandemic — a figure that Christopher said could be improved if advisors “come to the table knowing what they want their solution to be.”
Thomas and Christopher agreed that asking suppliers questions upfront — even potentially awkward ones regarding cashflow and how money comes in and out — is key to determining whether that company is a good “work-style fit.”
RELATED: 7 Ways the Relationship Between Suppliers and Travel Advisors Will Change
Returning attendee and Future Leaders Guide Nikki Miller, the owner and CEO of Travel With Nikki, added that “moving forward, I have to ask the tough questions of suppliers, and make sure we have a mutual understanding and that we are in it together to provide a great traveler experience.“
Now more than ever, suppliers will be stretched thin, Thomas said. According to her, suppliers spend a lot of time on upfront planning work before a client books a trip, so it is extra important that advisors do their part in vetting clients.
Moving forward, I have to ask the tough questions of suppliers, and make sure we have a mutual understanding and that we are in it together to provide a great traveler experience.
Being aware of each other’s pain points helps strengthen and grow the relationship — and the chance of success with the mutual client.
“At the end of the day, I’m the supplier’s long-term client,” Christopher said. “Our connection is so important in order to keep my connection to my clients.”
Making Those Money Moves Travel may have slowed to a crawl due to COVID-19 restrictions and travel advisories, but that should not stop travel advisors from moving their businesses fiercely forward.
So said Jenn Lee, vice president of sales and marketing for Travel Planners International, who gave Future Leaders attendees a crash course in profitability during the event’s Money Moves: Pandemic Edition session.
Don’t know where to start? Adopt an entrepreneurial mindset, regardless of whether you are an owner, an independent contractor or an agency employee, Lee said.
A good question to ask is ‘Would I buy or invest in this business as it stands now?’
“You need to think, ‘I am building a business, not a bank account,’” she said. “A good question to ask is ‘Would I buy or invest in this business as it stands now?’”
Although Lee acknowledged that many advisors are likely answering “no” to this question in 2020, certain strategies will set up agents for post COVID-19 success, including cutting themselves a check every two weeks; setting weekly goals; focusing on net income; forecasting into the future; and investing in the business by seeking out new partnerships or hiring virtual assistants.
RELATED: Community Voices: 5 Practical Ways to Set Up Your Travel Business to Survive
Attendee Jessica Pressler, a luxury travel advisor at Blissful Honeymoons and Destination Weddings, wrote in the session’s chat box that she has a reoccurring internal transfer to her personal bank account every two weeks. What Pressler needs now, she realized, is a virtual assistant. But her top takeaway? Travel advisors need to “change the narrative about travel.”
“Hope is not a strategy,” Lee said. “You should be talking about travel daily. You should be saying that you are a business figuring it out. The narrative is something we have an influence over.”
— Emma Weissmann
Communicating in a CrisisThough travel professionals are used to working through disruptions, COVID-19 has been “a crisis like no other,” said Misty Belles, managing director of global public relations for Virtuoso, during the “Travel, We’ve Got a Problem” workshop.
Belles said that because dialogue builds trust, the last thing attendees want to do is “go silent on people:” they should communicate and overcommunicate.
Attending advisors shared that a particular challenge is staying “100% in the know” and not wanting to give clients the wrong information.
You may have a different emotional reaction to what is going on than your clients.
Belles reminded attendees that they are experts in travel, not public health, so they should stay positive and stick to travel discussions.
She also shared that advisors want to avoid being a “verbal sledgehammer,” aka a person who shares every emotion and thought.
“You may have a different emotional reaction to what is going on than your clients,” Belles said. “People are in different places with this pandemic.”
Remember you are not making up the rules, Belles said — advisors are just sharing information, and clients’ choices are ultimately their own responsibility.
“During COVID-19, you have the opportunity to be a voice of reason when people are looking for that,” she said. “The more you can speak authentically and authoritatively about travel, that’s how you start to win over clients.”
Belles encouraged advisors to act as social media influencers — especially if they are traveling firsthand right now.
“Once I shared that we were traveling, I started booking,” wrote attendee Alison Galloway, a travel advisor for FDV Global LLC, in the session’s chat box. “It’s been the best advertisement.”
Mentoring is Major The industry is facing a problem when it comes to training newcomers, with 68% of advisors surveyed for a recent TravelAge West Need to Know report having no mentorship program in place.
Enter the three “live mentors” talking shop to this year’s Future Leaders attendees (70% of whom have been in business five years or less).
Their consensus was clear: Mentorship — whether you are giving or receiving — is a win for all, with Randy Garfield, former president of Walt Disney Travel Company, noting that “you never look bad making someone else look good.”
You never look bad making someone else look good.
Success also comes from “switching from a mindset of scarcity to one of abundance,” said Christen Perry, founder and owner of Classic Travel Connection.
“There is ample business for every travel advisor in this world to have enough,” she said. “Keeping things to yourself and not sharing what you know is really doing yourself a disservice.”
And for mentees seeking out guidance, Cory Wallace, manager of national accounts for Celebrity Cruises, suggested to “make sure your managers know what you want out of life.”
“We all have different levels of ambition and desire,” he said. “But if the people above you don’t know what you want, they can’t help guide you there.”
The conversation continued during an open networking session between Avanti Destinations’ Gina Bang and advisors including Theresa Chu-Bermudez, owner of Get Out Custom Travels.
Bang, director of marketing for Avanti, said that intentionality is key when creating a mentorship relationship. That advice struck a chord with Chu-Bermudez.
“Even though I have mentored others in the past and have seen others as a mentor, the actual intention of mentorship wasn’t there,” Chu-Bermudez said, who recommended setting clear expectations as both a mentor and a mentee — as well as defining what you both hope to achieve from the relationship.
Black Travel MattersThe Black Travel Panel examined how the travel industry connects — or fails to connect — with people of color.
“I became a travel advisor just five years ago, and right away I noticed that people of color are not widely represented in the industry,” said Samantha Hammond, owner of Jus Adventures Travel Services, who was one of the speakers on the panel. “Most of my clients were Black, and none of the marketing materials reflected what my customers looked like.”
RELATED: The Hard Realities That Black Travel Advisors Face — and How to Be a Better Ally
Jazzmine Douse, national account manager for AmaWaterways, believes being deliberate is key to bringing more diversity into the industry.
“You can’t just fall back to a default position and expect the situation to change,” she said. “It takes someone intentionally looking at the situation. And, long term, people are going to support businesses that are intentional about fixing these policies.”
Minorities want to be represented and they are speaking out, so if you’re not looking for new ways to grow your business and reach new markets, you might get left behind.
Trevor Williams, an advisor and owner of Book and Bag Travel Agency, feels that people are going to need to be comfortable being uncomfortable in order for the industry to reach its potential.
“An agent’s objective every morning should be on growing business and tapping into new markets, and sometimes that means being uncomfortable,” Williams said. “Maybe you need to visit Black colleges or Black churches — whatever you need to do to relate to all your clients. Minorities want to be represented and they are speaking out, so if you’re not looking for new ways to grow your business and reach new markets, you might get left behind.”
— Kenneth Shapiro
Laying Down the Law Travel advising in today’s climate has proven to be more contentious than ever before — but that does not always have to be the case, according to Jeffrey Ment, TravelAge West’s travel industry legal columnist and managing partner of The Ment Law Group.
Oftentimes, you may be signing a personal guarantee, and you’ll be liable for any chargebacks if your business account goes to zero or negative.
Ment works with advisors to help acknowledge their vulnerabilities so they can protect themselves accordingly. This is particularly important today: Even when the phone finally rings with opportunity, advisors should temper that excitement with reasoned decision-making when guiding people, Ment said during the event’s Lawyer Up session.
“Don’t discourage them, and don’t overly encourage them, either,” he added.
Ment also reminded advisors that they do not need to “be on the pulse of every single change at a destination.” Instead, they can shift some of that responsibility to their clients.
On the popular topic of credit card chargebacks, Ment warned advisors of the fine print when signing up with a merchant processor: “Oftentimes, you may be signing a personal guarantee, and you’ll be liable for any chargebacks if your business account goes to zero or negative.”
He also recommended to include verbiage about chargebacks and the like in client agreements, and to advocate for better credit card protection alongside industry organizations including American Society of Travel Advisors.
Though Ment endorsed companies such as Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection and Aon for errors and omissions (E&O) insurance, another smart move is to secure partners with lenient policies for refunds, cancellations and more — and then to turn that into a marketing opportunity for attracting clients.
— Valerie Chen
Personal Genius Orlando Ashford recommends that people — regardless of their age or length of career thus far — ask themselves: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
According to Ashford, regularly posing this question can help inform a successful “career vision.” It is also important to constantly work toward that goal, taking on relevant roles and opportunities along the way.
How do you leverage ... the thing that makes you unique and special?
During the Future Leaders keynote, the former president of Holland America Line gave a sneak preview into some of the lessons he has learned over the course of his own career, which will be chronicled in his upcoming book, “How Did You Get That Job? 8 Principles to Accelerate Your Career and Soar in Corporate America.” (He wrote the book during quarantine, no less.)
Ashford stressed the significance of delivering results, sharing how he made it a point early in his career to always ask his boss, “What’s on your plate?” and then assume responsibility for those items. Ashford also spoke to the value of “playing multiple chessboards;” in his career, that has encompassed a dedication to public speaking, participation in several boards and a willingness to work in different industries.
Last, but far from least, Ashford advised Future Leaders attendees to “leverage [their] point of difference” — something he also calls “personal genius.” For example, when people tell Ashford that they don’t see color or that he’s African American, they aren’t actually seeing him.
“How do you leverage ... the thing that makes you unique and special?” he asked. “It’s not something for you to hide or bury, [or for you] to try to act like everyone else. It’s something to celebrate.”
— V.C. The Details Future Leaders in Travel Retreatwww.futureleadersintravel.com