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Friday,  April 12, 2024 9:18 PM 

On Location: Agent secrets revealed at TTAND’s open-mic “Think Tank” at sea

On Location: Agent secrets revealed at TTAND’s open-mic “Think Tank” at sea
From left, clockwise: Penny Martin, Terry Hawkins, Donnalea Madeley. (Pax Global Media)
Michael Pihach

Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.

While the sea was churning, travel agents were learning.

Day three of The Travel Agent Next Door’s (TTAND) conference on board Royal Caribbean's Harmony of the Seas in the Caribbean unfolded on Tuesday (April 26) with the return of a rousing brainstorming session called the “Agent Think Tank,” which allowed TTAND advisors to share front line obstacles and discover solutions to common industry problems.

The open-mic forum, which first debuted at TTAND’s 2019’s conference at Iberostar Selection Playa Mita in Punta Mita, Mexico, was moderated by company Founder Flemming Friisdahl and Vice-President of Agent Experience Penny Martin, who opened the floor to nearly 200 agents attending TTAND’s 2022 conference at sea, aptly titled “STTANDING Stronger Together.” 

“If we work together, we will achieve more,” Friisdahl said a day earlier in his opening remarks, reminding attendees to not view each another as competition, but rather, as collaborators. 

“If we all get stronger and look better at what we’re doing, it’s going to represent the travel industry in a more professional way.”

VP of Agent Experience Penny Martin (left) and Founder Flemming Friisdahl host TTAND's

Adding to the day’s supplier presentations, Tuesday’s “Think Tank” revealed real-life experiences of TTAND agents – from seasoned pros to industry newcomers – who are reviving their business after coping with pandemic-related challenges for more than two years.

How to overcome customer hesitancy

Naturally, first up was how to overcome customer hesitancy regarding COVID-19 and how agents can effectively market their services to future travellers.

“Get out there and show them that you’re travelling,” one agent immediately told the room, generating a sea of applause.

READ MORE: Agents, suppliers get in shipshape at TTAND’s 2022 conference at sea

But Friisdahl, without undermining the value of that suggestion, pushed for more, calling on participants to share specific actions and tactics that could be used to get in front of customers and help grow business.

Kelowna, B.C.-based Terry Hawkins touted the benefits of using videos via YouTube to engage with clients.

Terry Hawkins urges his peers to post videos on YouTube. (Pax Global Media)

Hawkins said he started a YouTube channel during the pandemic and immediately saw an improvement in his sales.

“Everybody looks to video,” Hawkins told his peers, noting the excitement his clients feel whenever he sends one out.

Earlier in the year, Hawkins posted a video about Royal Caribbean’s Perfect Day CocoCay experience in the Bahamas (an activity conference attendees will try this Saturday) and he “tripled the size” of his booking in just three days.

“I suck at Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, all of that,” he said, “But YouTube…It’s huge. That’s where everybody is at.”

Friisdahl acknowledged that some in the room aren’t comfortable appearing on camera, but he urged attendees to just get over it. 

“Don’t let it be about you. Let it be about you doing your job. Which is doing it [making a video],” he said, using the analogy of becoming an actor to play the role of an on-camera expert.

A video could be something as simple as showing clients what a stateroom looks like on board a ship.

“It’s about getting in front of the customer and telling them what you’re doing,” Friisdahl said.

“Clients want to hear from us"

Markham, O.N.-based Tamara Postma urged her peers to embrace Facebook as a place to openly post about travel “because our clients like to see us travelling.”

Postma said she travelled all throughout the pandemic, during various stages of Canada’s COVID-19 border measures, and through social media, she effectively kept her customers in the loop.

“Clients want to hear from us. They trust us,” she said.

Truro, N.S.-based Lorie Nearing also spoke on the importance of using social media: “Those of you who use it, keep using it and work at that stuff,” she said.

Nearing also wears a face mask that identifies her as a travel agent, which has resulted in everyday people approaching her, regularly, with questions about travel.

OPEN MIC. Tamara Postma (left) and Lorie Nearing share strategies at TTAND's

Which can sometimes be “a pain in the ass,” Nearing admitted, especially when people ask questions about obvious, much-talked-about issues, like if whether Canada’s vaccine mandate for airplanes still applies.

But they’re leads, nonetheless.

On ways to normalize travel, Nearing asks her clients to send pictures of themselves getting on planes, or to write quick anecdotes about their experience at a resort, which Nearing then posts on her social media. 

“People want to hear real stuff,” Nearing said. “They don’t want bullshit.”

On recording videos, in particular: “Just be real,” Nearing added. “People love that. Just be you.”

In praise of email 

But not all customers use social media, as Ontario-based Becky Kershaw, whose clients are mostly over the age 50, pointed out.

Kershaw uses email to engage with her customers, and recently found success in building her database simply by sending out an e-message every two weeks that contains updates on the state of travel, as well as an open invitation for family or friends to join her list.

“I’ve had 27 added to my database since January and some have signed up for a trip,” Kershaw said.

READ MORE: “We’re better, together”: Friisdahl gears up for TTAND's conference on board Harmony of the Seas

There’s also something to be said about the power of in-person interactions as well, as Manotick, O.N.-based Sandra Romanauskas explained.

Some of Romanauskas best customers have come from consumer shows, such as street markets and Christmas markets hosted at her church.

TTAND agents Becky Kershaw (left) and Sandra Romanauskas participate in the Think Tank. (Pax Global Media)

This spring, she’s setting up a booth at Canada’s Outdoor & Adventure Travel Show “and I am going to sell some Galapagos expeditions.”

“I get in front of people and I show them me and how excited I am about travel,” Romanauskas said.

Ontario-based Trish Bootsma partnered up with her local Rogers TV station to become an on-air travel expert, which, for her, has generated many leads.

And Alberta-based Joanne Cole interacts with clients in a playful way, carrying around a sparkling mermaid doll wherever she travels, placing it in various environments – such as in airplanes – for photos, which she then posts on her Instagram account (appropriately named “This Mermaid Rides.”)

Travel pro Donnalea Madeley uses a similar strategy, posting photos of a cute stuffed moose wearing a Canada-branded sweater on her social media when promoting travel.

“Clients know it,” Madeley said, “and it takes the pressure off of having to have hair and makeup done all the time.”

Success at the ski hill

Joanne Cole also found success in launching activations at her local ski hill.

For example: anyone who book a trip with her receives a free lift ticket that shows her agency’s branding. That ticket, in turn, is then viewed by other skiers, generating new interest.

READ MORE: TTAND's Agent Think Tank offers glimpse into agent wants & needs

Cole also has a sign on one of the ski lift poles at her local resort – each time skiers ride up the hill, they pass a picture of Cole, smiling at them, standing on a beach in Tahiti.

She also prints discount cards that allow potential clients to save money on future trips.

 Joanne Cole and her mermaid companion travel the world together. (Pax Global Media)

Friisdahl urged attendees to create their own loyalty program using, for example, printable coupons that offer incentives (such as a discount or share in profits) for referring others.

“It may reduce your income, but you got an income,” Friisdahl said, stressing that promotions are a cost of sale that ultimately help build future business.

Other suggestions shared Tuesday included using car wraps and t-shirts to promote services, hiring a social media manager, booking small groups and joining clients on trips, and to not only share customer photos on Facebook, but to also tag them (with their permission) so it boosts the reach.

Ontario-based Joseph Lacroix of Tuxedo Travel said he invites 30 people each day to join his business page on Facebook, and even if some decline, that tactic has still grown his audience from 500 to 1,200 members.

When suppliers cancel 

Tuesday also touched on what to do when suppliers cancel or change a booking – an issue that is now happening less often, Friisdahl noted.

On that topic, agents shared the following tips:

  • If a trip is cancelled, work with the supplier to find an alternative and offer the customer an incentive to stay on board. Even if it’s out of pocket, it will benefit you in the long run.
  • Always have a solution before calling a client with bad news. That way they’re not hit as hard because you’ve already got options.
  • A booking or experience might have been cancelled for safety reasons. Explain that when engaging with customers.
  • Acknowledge how frustrating cancellations are. Hear the customer out, empathize with them, and take responsibility for fixing the situation.
  • Set realistic expectations at the time of a booking in case, for example, direct flights become layovers down the road.
  • Go to the top. One agent whose clients had a bad experience with British Airways wrote the airline’s CEO and got a callback “within 15 minutes” from the company’s senior vice-president of customer service, who apologized and offered the clients a $1,200 voucher.
  • When suppliers come through, acknowledge that. They’re under pressure too.

There’s also something to be said about taking ownership of a mistake.

Nearly 200 travel agents are on board Royal Caribbean's Harmony of the Seas this week for TTAND's 2022 conference. (Pax Global Media)

“If you’re not sure who made the mistake, take ownership of it because you’re just trying to solve the problem…It diffuses the situation,” Friisdahl said, reminding agents to not let pride get in the way of completing a transaction.

Friisdahl also urged attendees to not bash suppliers on social media whenever things go wrong as it can lead to long-term professional consequences.

As TTAND’s conference sails on until Saturday (May 1), it is Friisdahl's hope that the “Think Tank” gets attendees thinking about next steps for achieving success while also helping others.

“It’s not going to impact your business by utilizing other people’s ideas,” he said. “There are so many people on this planet, there are plenty of customers to go around.”

“It’s about giving back by sharing your knowledge and skill sets.”

Stay tuned for more of PAX’s on-location coverage from The Travel Agent Next Door’s 2022 conference. 

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