“If you’re confident, customers are going to be confident with you.”
That was one of several pieces of advice shared by travel advisors at an open-mic forum on Tuesday (Nov. 2) at The Travel Agent Next Door’s (TTAND) 2021 conference “Agent ExtraordinIRIE: Actions & Tactics,” which is currently taking place at Moon Palace Jamaica.
The town hall-like session, which TTAND refers to as a “Travel Agent Think Tank,” gave the 165 agents in attendance this week an opportunity to ask questions and share strategies on how to move forward with selling travel after 19 months of coping with pandemic-related challenges.
From tried-and-true methods for keeping track of ever-changing travel restrictions (American Airlines’ Sherpa site and IATA’s Travel Centre emerged as popular resources) to embracing service fees to ways of building relationships with BDMs, the Think Tank demonstrated that while travel’s recovery is imminent, there will be speed bumps along the way.
The session – one of several taking place in Moon Palace Jamaica’s sprawling COVID protocol-enhanced event space this week – also underlined the importance of agents working together to ensure they are successful in a new travel landscape.
“The biggest message I want partners to take away from this conference is that they belong to a community and that they are part of something they can draw from,” Flemming Friisdahl, founder of TTAND, told PAX, which is covering the event on location.
“Agent ExtraordinIRIE” – which combines the words “extraordinary” and “irie,” a Jamaican saying that means everything is alright and feeling good – is about helping attendees create an action plan that they can use post-conference, Friisdahl said.
The ideas and real-life scenarios shared at Tuesday’s Agent Think Tank came directly from TTAND’s network of travel professionals, who each took turns addressing the room over a microphone.
The Think Tank concept was first introduced at TTAND’s 2019’s conference at Iberostar Selection Playa Mita in Punta Mita, Mexico and, this year, an additional 20 minutes was added to the session.
Friisdahl, standing on a stage next to Penny Martin, TTAND’s vice-president of travel agent services, moderated the discussion while Rhonda Stanley, vice-president of talent development, jotted down ideas on a flip chart.
On the topic of charging service fees, for example, one agent shared her success in setting up face-to-face meetings with clients, first, before mentioning her fee.
The power of establishing personal connections with potential clients, she suggested, can help normalize the idea of paying for a service like travel planning.
Another agent pointed out how he doesn’t even use the word “service fees” when doing business.
“I call them planning fees,” the agent said. “Get away from 'service fees' because every other industry uses it. We’re professionals. We’re planning for people.”
After the conference, TTAND emails attendees everything that was covered so they have a resource for moving their business forward.
Get in front of customers
Of course, not every travel agent is operating at the same level.
Friisdahl realizes there are some agents out there who, for various reasons, are not selling travel during the pandemic, whether it be related to safety concerns or opinions on vaccinations.
But creating division in the industry does not interest him.
“I’d rather see us unified and have differences of opinion versus me against you,” Friisdahl told PAX in an interview last week. “I think people need to do what they’re comfortable with.”
But waiting around for the pandemic to end won’t do agents any favours, he implied.
“If you’re a travel agent and your profession is selling travel, and you make a decision not to sell it, it’s like being a car salesman and saying, ‘Well, car accidents have gone up 50 per cent in Vancouver, and until they go back down, I’m not going to sell cars anymore.”
“Our job is to sell and promote travel and let customers buy it from you."
With that in mind, he encouraged agents to strictly “be the messenger” when it comes to communicating government restrictions and border rules for travel during the pandemic.
One agent during the Think Tank stressed the importance of “getting in front of customers” by experiencing destinations and showing clients that travel is, indeed, possible.
“As soon as I took my first trip to Mexico [during the pandemic], my bookings skyrocketed,” she said.
What colour are you?
TTAND’s agenda for the week, supported by some 30 supplier presentations, featured a “Personality Dimensions Workshop” on Monday (Nov. 1) led by motivational speaker and CEO of BizXcel Inc. Gary Gzik
To complement Gzik’s presentation, all attendees, in advance, were asked to complete a survey aimed at helping everyone understand different personality temperaments – especially their own.
There are four different personality types, defined by colours, and attendees were all emailed a report outlining where they fall on the colour spectrum.
The icebreaker that has hummed along at this week’s conference, in between one-on-one networking sessions and wine glass-clinking dinners, has been: “So, what colour are you?”
If you’re a “Resourceful Orange,” for instance, you’re someone who needs freedom, activity and variety.
“Authentic Blue” is someone who’s focused on relationships and self-actualization.
A person who is an “Organized Gold” finds belonging through duty and responsibility. Whereas “Inquiring Green” requires knowledge and competence.
By understanding these personality types, Gzik said, travel agents can understand their customer’s needs and wants better, and using the colour system as a guide, they can choose the right words for communicating with different types of people.
The 1.5-hour session, which was about helping agents get “in tune” with their customers, is “something we haven’t done before,” Friisdahl said.
When it comes to business and talking to clients: “It helps a lot when you know your own personality,” he said.
TTAND’s 2021 conference picks up where things left off in April 2020, which is when the week at Moon Palace Jamaica was originally supposed to happen but was postponed due to the coronavirus crisis.
Friisdahl said partners attending this year are “super stoked” about returning to in-person learning and engagement.
At Sunday night's (Oct. 31) kick-off event, a Halloween-themed beach bash, TTAND agent Judith Coates, who is also a co-founder of the Association of Canadian Independent Travel Advisors (ACITA), said it was "very emotional" seeing her colleagues in person after months of Zoom calls.
“Everybody has gone through hardship in their business, through different stages of almost-defeat, and this conference, so far, has been very optimistic," Coates told PAX.
Sharing the numbers
The week comes as TTAND’s sales and commission numbers are seeing an upswing in activity, especially as consumer confidence grows in the face of higher vaccination rates and eased travel restrictions.
Friisdahl is adamant on “sharing the numbers” with his partners, not only for the sake of being transparent, but also because it “takes away from the person’s opinion.”
“When you see the sales and commission it says, ‘Yes, [business] is coming back.’ So, if it’s not coming back for you, what are you not doing right? What is it that you should be doing?” Friisdahl said.
Primary and Associate Agents at TTAND have come and gone during the pandemic – Friisdahl said his team has processed 600 people over the past 18 months (400 individuals have joined, while 200 have left).
Among those who left, 65 per cent were Associate Agents and of the Primary Agents who moved on, most of them left the industry altogether, Friisdahl said.
“We’re now seeing a lot less people leave,” he said, noting how numbers began to shift last November and December as one-year contracts began to expire.
TTAND, currently, has 924 total agents (539 of which are Primary Agents).
“We’re not trying to conquer the world, we’re just trying to stay consistent with what we’re doing,” Friisdahl said.
His advice to agents attending his conference in Jamaica this week?
Build those relationships with suppliers and, as well, with TTAND’s top performing agents, he said (the names of these individuals were shared on a big screen at Monday’s opening session).
“There’s nothing more comforting than knowing that there are people around you who are likeminded and who want to see you succeed,” Friisdahl said.
TTAND’s 2021 Agent ExtraordinIRIE conference runs until Nov. 6. Stay tuned as PAX brings you more on-location coverage.