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“Travel agents are done. They disappeared with the advent of internet travel booking sites. The ones who are still left are hobbyists, or geriatric.”
We’ve all heard the vitriol. It’s mean. It’s misguided. And it even comes from friendly sources, such as the NBC comedy series “30 Rock.” In one episode, the main character, Liz Lemon, is afraid she’s going to lose her job and become irrelevant. She is invited to live under a bridge with a community consisting of “people whose profession is no longer a thing”: an American auto worker, a saxophone soloist, the CEO of Friendster and — wait for it — a travel agent.
This episode aired back in 2011, and I remember wondering how we had gotten to that point. What happened to the glamorous depiction of the travel agent, as shown in the 1960s-period drama “Mad Men”? In one episode, homemaker Betty Draper lunches with her travel agent friend, eyes her jealously and calls her career “spicy.”
Fast forward to the year 2017. A wellness-travel brand I follow on Instagram continuously tagged another user on its posts and stories showcasing trips to Bali, Japan and other destinations. One day I took the bait, clicked onto the account and discovered, much to my surprise, that it belongs to a travel agent.
But not just any advisor — this is someone who knows how to curate an aspirational photo collection of travel experiences and happens to sell them, too.
The agent, Justyna Smith, is the Los Angeles-based co-owner of Two Nights In. The millennial advisor is part of a growing group of travel planners “bringing sexy back” to the agent career. They travel often, and they travel in style. And they show it off, too. Using social media and blogs to share their enviable adventures, these social- media-savvy agents are selling followers on the trips they take and how they take them.
Awareness Aggregator “I know that the increase in our business is a direct result of having a strong social footprint,” said Erina Pindar, managing director for SmartFlyer, an international host agency that has 18,600 Instagram followers (as of press time). “I would say that 30 percent of the new inquiries we receive comes from a combination of our Instagram and website.”
SmartFlyer and Two Nights In both belong to Virtuoso, which has the biggest Instagram presence of any other travel advisor network at 23,600 Instagram followers. Virtuoso can’t track when individual advisors gain sales from Instagram versus other social media channels, but its executives hear that it happens all the time.
“Our Instagram numbers have grown tremendously — almost 500 percent in just the last two years,” said Terrie Hansen, senior vice president of marketing for Virtuoso. “In 2015, we noticed a huge opportunity for travel on Instagram and knew we had to jump on it. As the platform continues to evolve its features and functionality, Virtuoso is embracing new ways to share our brand and showcase the value of using a Virtuoso travel advisor.”
Michael Holtz, founder of SmartFlyer and an agent himself, says some of his Instagram posts have sparked six-figure bookings. Smith of Two Nights In credits Instagram for 40 percent of her agency’s business. And Brianna Glenn, owner of San Diego-based Milk + Honey Travels, attributes 30 percent of her new business to the social media platform.
“Outside of that, I credit even more of my business to Instagram because, more than anything else, using the platform is how I stay top of mind with anyone who follows me and eventually becomes my client,” she said. “I get to remind people every day that I am here and I can help them travel better.”
Chelsea Martin, who is both a professional travel advisor and a blogger, echoes this sentiment.
“About 75 percent of my business is from Instagram,” said Martin, who is the founder of Austin, Texas-based agency Passport to Friday. “This does not necessarily mean they’re all new people who I have never met, though. I have some direct connection with about 50 percent of my clients, while 25 percent are people I do not know who find me through hashtags and geotags.”
In addition to getting the message out about an individual’s existence, Instagram is also correcting the misconception that being a travel agent is passe or “a profession that is no longer a thing.”
“Instagram is perfect for showing the ‘behind the scenes’ and the personality of the agent,” said Jenn Lee, vice president of sales and marketing for host agency Travel Planners International (TPI). “Instagram users see that agents are savvy, smart and fun people to work with — not stuffy, catalog carrying, deck plan printing, fuddy-duddies. Agents can share their client’s photos, and followers can see that a travel agent helped get that person there.”
I credit even more of my business to Instagram because, more than anything else, using the platform is how I stay top of mind with anyone who follows me and eventually becomes my client.
Where the Wild Clients AreIn 2010, SmartFlyer was all about Twitter.
“There were a lot of agents, influencers and travel partners who frequented Twitter; it was like an ongoing cocktail party,” Pindar said. “Slowly but surely, as Instagram and mobile photo quality became more superior, we decided to concentrate heavily on Instagram and Facebook for the simple reason that those are the channels our clients are on.”
Specifically, Instagram is where the younger clients — millennials — hang out. And those 20- to 30-somethings are great clients to have.
“Millennials — a generation that has grown up booking online — are the most loyal to their advisor once they discover the advantages of the human connection in booking travel,” said Hansen of Virtuoso.
While SmartFlyer’s Holtz points out that social media isn’t a technique used only by millennials, agents Glenn and Smith agree that a fair number of their clients are under 36 years old and that Instagram is the No. 1 tool for finding and engaging with them.
Even though Facebook has had nearly 2 billion monthly active users (as of March 31), Instagram is proving to be the platform with the largest growth potential.
The app has been steadily growing since it launched in October 2010, but its number of users has recently increased quite rapidly. In April, Instagram hit an all-time high, growing from 600 million to 700 million monthly users in a four-month period (two years ago, it had only 350 million monthly users).
Plus, there are noticeable differences in engagement between the two platforms.
“Facebook is so ‘pay to play’ that it makes it hard to organically reach people, even when you have a following,” Glenn said. “On Instagram, people are constantly engaging; they’re liking photos, commenting on your posts and responding to your comments on their own posts.”
News flash! There’s a growing group of travel planners “bringing sexy back” to the agent career. And they’re on Instagram. // © 2017 Brianna Glenn
Through Instagram, travel planners such as Chelsea Martin of Passport to Friday can attract their target client by showing off their travel style. // © 2017 Chelsea Martin
Justyna Smith, agent co-founder of Two Nights In, credits Instagram with 40 percent of her business. // © 2017 Justyna Smith
Advisor Shawn Kirschenman says not to obsess about your number of followers or likes. // © 2017 Shawn Kirschenman
Michael Holtz, founder of SmartFlyer, suggests tagging partner suppliers, such as hotels. // © 2017 SmartFlyer
Courtney Beaver, an agent in Texas, says prospective clients vetting you might look at your whole feed—so limit your posts to the best photos. // © 2017 Courtney Beaver
If you’re staying at a partner hotel, consider pitching an Instagram takeover, says Martin. // © 2017 Chelsea Martin
Be sure to invest in high-quality photos of yourself — statistics show they perform well on Instagram. // © 2017 Brianna Glenn
Advisors agree that Instagram is a great tool to show millennials — a generation that did not grow up using agents — just what it is that an agent can do. // © 2017 Chelsea Martin
Brand FirstHoltz says the reason SmartFlyer gets so many referrals is because of the quality of its website and branding.
“That’s more important than using social media, because if you don’t have good branding, it becomes much more difficult to use social media,” he said. “Potential clients want to make sure everything lines up with a brand that they want to be associated with.”
For agents who have a strong professional identity and know how to communicate their personality, travel style and planning expertise through photos and captions, Instagram is a natural fit and a great tool for sharing that message.
“Don’t be afraid to allow your personality to come through in your posts,” Smith said. “A simple post of a hotel pool saying ‘The pool at hotel X’ isn’t going to inspire anyone. Talk briefly about the experience you had at the pool, or talk about the experience you could imagine having. Keep it personal and engaging.”
The idea that travel is best sold via imagery isn’t a new insight, but Instagram is no digitized travel brochure. If your account features your personal take on travel, it can build authority and solidify your brand.
“Authentic travel photography is one of the keys to our success,” Hansen said. “People know our Instagram represents real people and in-the-moment type shots that showcase travel experiences as only a Virtuoso travel advisor can plan.”
And how can that lead to bookings? TPI’s Lee says each Instagram post has the potential to “turn on the FOMO (fear of missing out) machine.”
The power of that fear is one that Shawn Kirschenman, a travel advisor for Seattle-based Woodside Travel, a Virtuoso agency, knows all too well.
“Almost instantly [after posting a travel photo on Instagram], I’ll get a text message or an email from clients that will say, ‘I want to go there!’” he said. “It inspires people to see the things they like for themselves.”
Besides flexing will power and only posting photos aligned with your brand, Glenn suggests that agents invest in high-quality photos of themselves.
“My brand and I are intertwined, and I’m the face of my brand, so my face should show up a lot — not to mention that an assessment of my posts always shows that photos with me perform the best,” she said.
Passport to Friday’s Martin encourages travel agents to communicate a consistent brand aesthetic on social channels.
“Learn photography, learn how to edit — I use Adobe Lightroom — and create a look that goes with your overall branding and feel that you want for your company,” she said.
And to show your travel style — and how your ideal clients hit the road — it’s a good idea to highlight partner suppliers in photos and videos.
“If the post is of a hotel I love and book a lot, I’ll tag it,” said Courtney Beaver, the travel agent owner behind Austin-based CTB Travel, an agency affiliate of SmartFlyer. “It can be good for building relationships within the industry.”
Martin takes this a step further by proposing to do an Instagram takeover when she stays at properties.
“When I did my Instagram takeovers for Andaz Mayakoba and La Valencia Hotel, they resulted in bookings and repeat clients,” she said.
Lessons in LessThe frequency of your posts is also something to consider. One post per day is the maximum for CTB Travel’s Beaver while traveling, and when she’s not traveling, she aims for two posts per week.
“I find that with social media, less is more,” Beaver said. “One photo can say a lot. People are watching — you don’t need a ton.”
Anything you post is discoverable — no matter how long ago it was published, says Beaver, who had a new client calling her with the request to stay at the same Italy hotels as she did on a 2014 trip. Those posts were buried in her feed, so it was clear that the prospective client spent considerable time on her Instagram, sizing her up and scoping out her travel style.
Nonetheless, your most Instagram-obsessed followers might be seeing your posts every hour, so be consistent with posting, but don’t overdo it.
“No one likes seeing 11 posts from the same account every day,” said Smith of Two Nights In. “On the flip side, make sure you’re regularly posting. One photo a month won’t gain you any traction.”
Not only does limiting posts allow you to complete your primary job of servicing clients, but it also helps prevent any negative associations that could arise.
“Some people see my social media and think that I’m traveling all the time,” Beaver said. “People can’t wrap their head around seeing me all over the place and how it’s actually a job. That can be somewhat detrimental.”
Put Your Clients to WorkTo offset these negative associations, Beaver posts photos of clients traveling, as well as photos that tease the trips she’s in the process of creating for clients.
“The social-media-savvy agents have their clients do the work for them, by asking them to tag them when they are traveling,” Hansen said. “It’s the perfect way to increase referrals since their clients’ friends see their posts, too.”
Beaver says this strategy helped her business.
“In the beginning, I was focused on my own travels, but I started to take off with Instagram when I began reposting client photos,” she said.
It’s Not a Numbers GameNo, you don’t need millions of followers to make an impact on Instagram.
“When I first started, I obsessed about increasing my numbers,” said Kirschenman of Woodside Travel. “I would research ways to increase followers and spend lots of time liking pictures through hashtags. I was wasting my time. Now, I don’t even pay attention to how many followers I have. I’d rather have a few people paying attention to my posts than a whole bunch of people mindlessly liking them.”
Beaver agrees. Oftentimes, a client will refer her to one of his or her friends or the digital equivalent: tag Beaver in a photo related to a trip she has planned. That client’s friend might peruse Beaver’s Instagram but not follow her account or even like her photos. But when that person starts planning a trip months later — or gets into a conversation about travel planning — Beaver’s name might come up.
“People started sending me emails saying, ‘I saw a photo of a trip you did. I’d love to hear more,’” she said. “It’s about awareness. I’m not that worried about who likes my photos or who follows me. People are seeing my posts.”
Organic GrowthWhile obsessing over likes, comments and followers is a no-no, there’s no harm in strategic, organic growth via collaborations with social media influencers — companies and individuals with large or dedicated niche followings.
“As with any business, the more organic publicity you can get, the better, but the fit has to be right,” Smith said, referring to how I found her via the wellness account @HowYouGlow.
After Smith and @HowYouGlow engaged with each other on Instagram, Smith reached out to the duo behind the account for an in-person meeting on how to collaborate.
“The three of us really seem to like the same things when it comes to travel, and we’ve built a great friendship beyond the client-agent relationship,” Smith said.
The golden rule of engagement is: In order to get engagement, you must first engage, says Glenn of Milk + Honey Travels.
“The most natural way to draw attention to your own account is to find people who genuinely interest you, and/or you know, and who are the ideal type of client you want to work with,” she said. “Follow them, and then engage with their photos. I also do my best to constantly create an environment where people want to participate.”
Martin, who has nearly 14,000 followers on Instagram, says that once accounts with large followings started reposting her photos, her number of followers grew. Of course, this is a win not just for her, but for the agent community at large.
“All of us of a certain generation grew up booking online,” Smith said. “Now, we get to reintroduce something that’s not new but primed to be rediscovered. For us, this is a sign of a huge opportunity. It’s an exciting time.”
Geotags assign a location to a photo or video. The geotag field is searchable.
Best Practice: Be sure to catch folks researching destinations and properties by inputting a geotag on all your posts.
Hashtags are words or phrases preceded by the pound sign. Like geotags, hashtags are searchable. They can describe locations or emotions and give the photo context.
Best Practice: Broad descriptors (such as #travel) are oversaturated; your post is unlikely to stand out. Instead, target a smaller community by using a company’s hashtag when relevant (such as #travelagewest). Also, don’t clutter your caption with hashtags; instead, post hashtags in the comments section. Do this immediately after posting for a better chance of being found by users searching that hashtag’s feed.
Instagram Stories is a temporal storytelling tool that allows users to share videos, Boomerangs and still photos — with the capability of adding geotags, stickers, face filters and emojis — in a successive format. Each post lasts for only 24 hours.
Best Practice: Stories offers a chance to show you “behind the scenes.” The tool provides an outlet for less glamorous but important branding imagery — such as assembling itineraries into folders, participating in site inspections and more. If you’re comfortable speaking on camera, Stories is a good outlet for that as well — but keep those limited.
Instagram Takeovers are when one user (typically a company) invites another user (typically an individual) to “take over” the account by posting a series of his or her own photos.
Best Practice: If you’re trying out a partner hotel, cruise or other experience, pitch a “takeover” of the company’s account. For the takeover, share photos of you enjoying the product, your favorite features of the product and captions that showcase your personality and expertise.