In a fast-changing world, disruption in the travel industry has become the new normal. From evolving traveler desires and ever-changing security rules to selling on social media and a seemingly never-ending slew of online booking options, travel agents have become the steady go-to experts—the professionals who can answer questions, advise on destinations, access the best prices, arrange out-of-the-box experiences and more.
But even as that travel agent expertise and professionalism takes the pressure off the traveler, it can leave some travel professionals in a state of flux, constantly responding to a changing landscape without ever having the time, energy and knowledge to properly prepare for the future.
“It’s the difference between being proactive and reactive,” says Barbie Groves, vice president of sales for The Mark Travel Corporation. “The only way to stay ahead of the game is to welcome a mind-set change—to make a conscious effort to use your skills, knowledge and attitude to re-create your approach to business.”
None of us has a crystal ball, but travel agents well versed in today’s travel landscape—and willing to take risks—will be those best prepared for whatever changes might come. In fact, those are also the agents most likely to lead the charge in changing the very way business is conducted. From being prepared to respond to an in-the-moment crisis to literally creating a new model for doing business, today’s disruptors are forward-thinking business people who base decisions on concrete knowledge, skills and facts, along with the courage to take risks and try something new.
Here’s a look at how today’s travel professional trend-setters approach their businesses.
Keep Up with the News
Travel and current events are inextricably linked. Watch what’s going on today to predict what will be hot in the future and what’s nearing saturation. Despite known trends, though, terrorism, disease, natural disasters, political crises and other unexpected events can change the travel mix in an instant. “When there’s a major event, our approach is to get out ahead of it, rather than trying to put the fire out later,” says Jennifer Doncsecz, CTIE, president of VIP Vacations Inc., headquartered in Bethlehem, PA.
For example, during the height of the Zika outbreak, Doncsecz’s company took a proactive approach.
“We realized we can’t change somebody’s fear,” she says. “So instead of accepting that sales would be horrible, we changed our focus and emphasized our expertise in other destinations. We used social media to highlight destinations that were not affected. Internally, we put a priority on making the most of our sales—including tours, insurance, airport hotels and other aspects to maximize profit.” The end result was that even in a challenging year, the agency’s 2016 commission total was close to that of 2015, their best year to date.
Don’t Get Left Behind
Technology changes, social media evolves, traveler expectations shift. “Our industry is changing constantly, but unfortunately a lot of people in it don’t want to change their ways,” says Geoff Millar, co-owner with his wife, Sharon Millar, of Ultimate All-Inclusive Travel and Ultimate Hawaii Vacations, both based in Gilbert, AZ. When the two opened their agency together in 2003, Millar brought with him more than two decades of experience in computer software and sales and marketing—he embraced best practices in both business management and technology long before many others had made that shift, including using the internet for lead generation, specialization for differentiation within the marketplace and a focus on the sales aspect of being a travel agent.
Millar was ahead of the game in his approach at the time, which focused on the sales aspect, but with a twist. “We are salespeople, but we do not sell travel,” he states. “What is the only unique product you have to sell? Yourself. The unique product you sell is your knowledge and your service—this is a relationship business.”
Still, technology enables those relationships and changing mores affect the way travelers want to interact. “When you really understand your business, your market, your products, the world around you—it helps you cut through the noise and stay focused on what’s really important,” says Millar.
Try Something New
Education and knowledge are key, but don’t wait to be an expert before dipping a toe into something new. Not sure how Pinterest works for travel? Try it out; see what happens. Interested in setting up a group tour that taps into one of your personal passions? Start sounding out others to gauge interest.
When the stakes are higher, of course, more research and analysis is crucial. But the concept remains the same: “Don’t get so overwhelmed that you don’t do anything. Narrow in on something that you think you can accomplish and don’t give up too quickly,” says Keith Waldon, founder and director of Departure Lounge, based in Austin, TX.
For Waldon, that “something” was pretty big: In 2013, he debuted a unique combination travel agency/coffee shop/wine bar in downtown Austin. “I knew that we, as an industry, had to get back on the street—the industry had gone invisible and we needed to be in the public eye as a bridge to future generations and to make sense in the current marketplace.” As an executive with Virtuoso, Waldon had encouraged others to become more visible. “But I wasn’t getting any traction,” he says. “So I decided to lead by example and jump in.”
Strategize—and Then Adapt Again
Waldon knew from the start that he might have to adjust his idea with time. “We used it as a laboratory, and after three years, we had a clear image of what we wanted to do moving forward.” To that end, he recently closed the original location and just opened a new, similar concept in a different location, with the goal of franchising moving forward. “It’s still an upscale lounge in a great location with coffee and bar service,” he says, “but we no longer charge for beverages and it’s no longer a public bar, which allows us to better control occupancy and create a better atmosphere for discussing high-end travel.”
Doncsecz, too, is always thinking about refining and adapting her strategies. “We’re always looking at the data to see how we’re doing. But those are lagging indicators—they tell us where we’ve been,” she says. “We also look at the current situation—current sales, marketing strategies, customer service responses, current trends. Those are the leading indicators that can help guide us moving forward. I’ve always got my binoculars out and am looking at what’s ahead.”