Phone calls on holidays, emails in the middle of the night, text messages while you're bathing the kids, private Facebook messages during the first adult date you've had in a year? Is this how you envisioned your career as a Travel Agent?
There is no denying that there are travel emergencies that require our immediate attention regardless of what hour of the day or night it is occurring. Nor will you get any argument from me that being flexible with clients can certainly help build your business and reputation. But, what about all of those other inquiries and demands on your time? As Travel Agents, we tend to forget that we are professional experts who are equally deserving of respect for our "off-time" time just like any other professional. I can assure you that if I texted my attorney or accountant in the middle of the night, I may be the recipient of a nastygram tomorrow. The air-conditioning technician is not going to appreciate a phone call at 1:00 am asking him what he thinks about a new system I am thinking about buying. And, my physician is not going to respond to my 3 am email advising them that I forgot to tell them that I need a refill on my medication.
Let's take a look at the most common communications we receive from clients that can feel intrusive on our professional and personal lives and how we, as professional Travel Agents, can establish boundaries that are mutually beneficial.
YOUR FINAL PAYMENT IS DUE
First reminder: your final payment is due in two weeks. No response. Second reminder: your final payment is due in one week. Third reminder: your final payment is due in three days. No response. Final reminder: your final payment is due tomorrow and if you don't make your final payment, the supplier will cancel your booking and you'll lose all of your money. Client responds at 3 am with a frantic text stating that they just submitted their payment form and requests that you respond IMMEDIATELY to confirm you got it because "they" are worried they will lose their booking OR they email you and state that they had no idea their final payment was due and would you be so kind as to obtain an extension because they don't have all of the money to pay yet.
Can you avoid these scenarios completely one-hundred percent of the time? No! However, you can avoid them most of the time by taking a few simple steps. First, always advise your client that the final payment is due one or two weeks before the actual final payment date. This alleviates YOUR stress and worry and eliminates frantic communications at the last minute. Second, always include a time of day that the payment is due. For instance, we always state that the payment is due on such and such a date, no later than 4:00 PM EST. By including an actual time of day, we have eliminated the 11:59 pm payment authorizations coming through. Third, from the initial invoice through the final payment, include a disclaimer in your communications that under no circumstances will a supplier grant a final payment extension and that non-payment on or before that date is an automatic, non-refundable forfeiture of all monies previously paid and loss of the booking.
Text at 1:52 am: "Hey, my friend wants to come with us - can you just add them to the booking? They just have to pay airfare if we stick them in the room with us, right?" Email at 4:22 am: "So my friend and I were just thinking we should take a trip in 2 weeks and we need to get moving on this right away. We just found an amazing Groupon - can you match it?" Voicemail at 8:15 pm: "I just looked at the papers you sent me for our booking (sent two weeks ago) and my husband's birthday is wrong. I went back and looked at what I sent you...I don't know what I was thinking (giggle inserted here). Can you call me immediately - we need to fix this right away." Private inbox message at midnight: "OMG, someone just told me that I need a passport for Puerto Rico. Is that true??????"
See where I'm headed with this? Not one of these communications needs or deserves a response until you are open for business during your normal business hours. You will not lose a booking because you did not respond on demand. If a client makes a booking in the middle of the night on a whim, they weren't going to wait for your response anyway. These types of questions and intrusions on your time can all wait until you can answer them at an appropriate time. When I was a kid, my mother used to tell me that "no one can chase you if you don't run". In other words, set your boundaries, be professionally firm about them, and these types of communications and demands on your time will lessen over time.
AUTO-RESPONDERS ARE YOUR FRIEND
I admit that I may not be the most tech-savvy person in the world. However, I have learned that auto-responders are my friend. When someone emails me or sends an inquiry on Facebook, or even when I'm driving and a text comes through, clients (or potential clients) know that I have received their communication and will be in touch with them. My boundaries are established, but the client knows they are in the "queue" so-to-speak.
It is critical that you keep your voicemail message and your auto-responders up-to-date. There is nothing more frustrating for a client than to get a message stating that you're out of the office until December 1st and it's now December 15th. Confession: I've been guilty of this myself, more than once. It makes you look unprofessional and if you can't pay attention to your own details, how can someone trust you to take care of theirs? Do some research and find the apps that work for you!
change your thinking
If I had a dollar for every time a Travel Agent tells me that they "are just starting out so I have to take what comes my way...", I would no longer need to work. It's time to CHANGE YOUR THINKING!
There is absolutely no better time to set boundaries, not only with your time, but with the type of clients you wish to work with, than when you are starting your business. You do NOT have to take what comes your way, especially when what is coming your way is a lot of hard work for very little money or worse, no booking at all. Think about others who are in professional service businesses such as dentists. Most dentists are not full-service - they are specialists, experts in their field - just as you are. They do not negotiate pricing, they don't keep their cell phone next to their face while they are sleeping so they can hear the ping of the inbox messages, and they don't take any client because "it's coming their way". They establish their boundaries and they stick with them, knowing that in time, their business will grow into the vision they set for themselves.
As a Travel Agent, you are also a professional with a vision - don't be desperate for just anything that presents itself - it may not be the right thing for you or your business. Change your thinking and take the necessary steps to establish yourself as a professional and grow your vision by establishing boundaries, both with your time and what you are willing to do with your time.
Perhaps there is no more contentious subject between professional travel agents than when or whether to gift your clients. Ask any five travel agents what their feelings are on this subject and you are likely to get five different answers. Consider some of these factors before you make a decision on the precedent you wish to establish with your clients.
when was the last time you received a gift just for being a client?
I do business routinely with attorneys, accountants, bookkeepers, IT professionals, physicians and more. I've never received a gift from any of them just because I pay for their services. They are experts in their field, just as I am, and I have no expectation that simply by retaining them or even sending them referrals, that I should receive a gift. Conversely, they do not send me gifts in exchange for my business and I am sure it has never crossed their mind to do so (even for my birthday, wedding, or any other special occasion). While it doesn't always happen, the most I can hope for is that there is a degree of loyalty between us that might stimulate mutual referrals.
Are you already gifting your clients?
Think about this...are you already gifting your clients before they even depart for their travels? No? What about the luggage tags or the cutesy little document holders you sent them with their travel documents? Did you book excursions for them where the time factor for your work far outweighed the couple of dollars you will earn for doing it? Maybe, you didn't earn anything for a segment of the trip that you worked so painstakingly hard on - such as airline tickets that you didn't charge a service fee for, or for excursions and show tickets that are not commissionable.
Are gifts part of your marketing budget?
Do you consider gift-giving as part of your marketing budget or are you just sending gifts to clients because you think it's the "nice thing" to do? If you are incorporating your gifts to clients as part of your marketing budget, you must know what your return on investment (ROI) is. Have you calculated how much repeat business or referrals those gifts have brought to you? What percentage of your marketing budget are you spending on client gifts? Is it possible that spending your marketing dollars elsewhere may yield better results?
HAVE YOU CALCULATED YOUR EARNINGS?
One of the major weaknesses in our business is that most travel agents, despite being professional experts in their field, truly do not know what their costs are to do business. For instance, do you know how much it costs you to generate a lead? How much does it cost you in terms of hours expended to confirm a booking (translation: what is your actual hourly rate for doing the work you do)? What are your operating costs to do business (and yes, you have operating costs even if you work from home)? So, how do your costs compare to your earnings? Now, factor in what you want to spend on a client gift....did you make money from the gift or did you just give away your earnings? If you take the time to really determine how much you earn for your expertise, you may find that those client gifts are not as valuable as you thought they were. For the record, I've seen agents make $115.00 commission and spend $25.00 on a client gift. In the end, when you factor in all costs, the agent makes nothing and in fact, is likely losing money.
Where do I go from here?
None of this is written in stone. Each of us, as independent business owners, must make decisions every day as to what is best for growing our business. While I personally believe that client gifts are generally unnecessary, that doesn't mean it isn't right for you and your business. With that being said, I encourage you to think long and hard before establishing such precedents with your clients. Sending a beautiful honeymoon gift when the client spent $10,000 may have seemed like a good idea, but are they now expecting a gift (or are you feeling compelled to give one) when they take a quick getaway for $2,000 and your earnings are far less? The best advice I can give you is to truly know your costs of doing business and for every dollar you spend...know the return on your investment and always, always, know your value as a professional expert. This will help you make an informed decision as to where you want to go from here when it comes to client gifts.
Stacey Ray is the CEO of Groupit Travel Host Agency and Groupit Travel. You can contact her by clicking here.
In the United States, there are about 100 (+/-) host agencies that you can choose from if you decide to embark on a career as a travel agent. Each host agency has something unique to offer and only you can determine if that "uniqueness" is the right fit for you. For experienced agents who have been with host agencies, perhaps you need more from your host in order to take your business to the next level.
How can you determine if a host agency is the right fit for you? Let's take a look at some of the factors that you should consider before making a commitment to any of them.
Size of the host agency
For anyone brand new to the travel industry, you may have seen host agencies with thousands of agents as well as hosts with small numbers of agents. If you have no experience in the industry, other than planning your own trips or those for friends and families, think about which size host agency will likely offer you the most intense one-on-one training, mentoring, guidance, and accessibility to the things you need in order to make your business successful.
Our question bodes well even for experienced travel agents because perhaps you are feeling frustrated because you've been with a large host agency who doesn't return your phone calls or emails in a timely manner, nor do they have the time (or the inclination) to work with you on an individualized basis to help you reach your goals. You've been left on your own to navigate the complexities of the business and you are at a stand-still. Maybe, you're with a smaller host agency that has disappointed you.
No matter what level you are at in the travel agent/agency industry, determining if you are with the right host agency or if it is time to make a change, is something we all need to consider from time to time.
HAVE YOU MET YOUR "HOST"?
I started out in this business with a very large host agency (over 4,000+ agents). Unless I paid for the privilege of "meeting" the actual leadership team via training events or FAM trips, or reached a certain booking level, I was just another agent paying monthly fees. I was left to my own devices to use the online resources provided to figure everything out. Fortunately, I had spent 30 years "unofficially" in the travel business and much of it came naturally to me. That is not the case for most people.
When you work with a smaller host, chances are you are going to have a fairly close relationship with the owner or CEO of that host agency because they are invested in you - with their time, money, and commitment to see you succeed. Think about the business model of the ultra-large host agencies....your monthly fees keep them in business. In a smaller host agency, your monthly fees generally pay their expenses to help you stay in business by providing you with the tools you need, but your bookings and success are what matter to them most.
integrity & transparency
There are many ways to determine if your host agency operates with integrity and transparency...and there are moments where you will have "epiphanies" that remind you that all is not what it seems to be. This can range from promises made, but not kept, unpaid commissions or late commissions, rewards that you have personally earned from your bookings that go into a big general account where you need your host's permissions to use your rewards, finding out that your host agency is not properly licensed or that in fact, you are not covered under their EOL insurance, and to skimming commission levels (you are told the commission level is 15%, but in fact your host is getting 16-18% on your bookings).
It is imperative that you do your due diligence to find out how your potential host agency handles these types of issues. Ask for proof and documentation because your business is on the line, not to mention your reputation. When you find that a host has misled you on one issue, you can be sure there are others in which they will follow suit.
Unless your host has a crystal ball that has been verified as 100% accurate, there is no way for them to promise you a particular number of leads in any specific time period. Leads for travel agents are somewhat based on the direction of the wind and many factors can impact the number and type of leads that any agency receives: weather, world events, economic standstills, public health warnings, travel trends, and so much more.
When a host agency tells you that they guarantee leads, there are some very important questions to ask:
Do you see where I am heading with this? Simply hearing your host agency tell you that they provide you with leads does not make it so.
WHAT IS YOUR NICHE?
Your niche, or specialty, is perhaps one of the most important things to consider when you are selecting a host agency. If you basically plan to make booking cruises 90% of your business, working with a host agency that specializes exclusively in all-inclusive resorts is likely not a good match. If you are a European travel specialist, you will want to work with a host that has extensive experience in custom European bookings as well as solid relationships with suppliers in the European market. If group travel or romance travel is your niche market, be sure to find out if the leader of your host agency is a certified specialist in these areas. After all, if you wanted to be a world-famous sculptor, you wouldn't take lessons from a pianist just because you are both in the "arts". If your goal was to be a pastry-chef, you wouldn't sign on to mentor under a butcher, just because you are both in the food industry. The same holds true for travel agents when selecting a host: be sure that your host agency can provide you with the expertise you need to take your business to the next level.
Commission levels are important and they are generally the core of what agents look for in a host agency. However, there are some things to consider. Of note, 2017 seems to have resulted in a paradigm shift with suppliers: many are moving to tiered commission levels regardless of who you are or what consortia your host belongs to. What this means is that if your host cumulative books a tremendous amount with preferred suppliers, the commissions are going to be higher, but if a supplier you wish to use is not someone the host agency generally has bookings with, your commissions may be lower. This is true regardless of whether you are with a large or small host agency. Another factor to consider is related to your niche. If your business is based on cruise bookings and your host does not really specialize in cruises, chances are that you will not get the premium commissions you are looking for or are accustomed to.
Now, critical to your decision-making process is how and when you get paid by your host. It is imperative that you know this information in writing before you ever sign with a host agency. Verbal promises are meaningless and if your potential host does not have detailed, written policies and procedures for how and when you will get paid, run - don't walk, to the next potential host.
Most legitimate host agencies pay twice per month and provide you a payment and direct deposit schedule that you can rely on. Additionally, a reputable host agency will provide you with a written report so that you know what you are getting paid for. You should never, ever, have to beg to be paid for your commissions, track them down with suppliers, or "pay" to have your host agency look into it. If you are not being paid on time or consistently looking for unpaid, past-due commissions, this is cause for great alarm. We strongly suggest you consider moving on to a more reputable host agency and contact your attorney.
YOUR NEXT STEP
There are multiple ways in which to "vet" a potential host agency and we urge you to do so.
Stacey Ray is the CEO of Groupit Travel Host Agency and Groupit Travel (a consumer website that does generate leads for agents within the host agency). To learn more about Stacey, please click here.