“Our agents serve their customers, we serve our agents,” Flemming Friisdahl, founder of The Travel Agent Next Door (TTAND), told PAX.
That was the driving force behind TTAND’s first-ever “Agent Think Tank,” a new, open-mic forum that made its debut at the host agency’s national conference, MORE™ U, this week at the Iberostar Selection Playa Mita in Punta Mita, Mexico.
The session – a “reverse panel” of the sorts – gave TTAND agents an opportunity to share issues and ideas with the company’s top brass in a structured and interactive environment.
“Sometimes, if we have a panel, we only hear from five people out of 200,” said Penny Martin, TTAND’s vice-president of agent experience. “Whereas, with [the Think Tank], more people have an opportunity to talk.”
The one-hour workshop gave conference attendees an opportunity to share concerns related to their home-based travel business, request new tools and services, problem-solve and, notably, offer advice to each other.
Four areas of discussion
The idea of hosting a Think Tank was suggested by Rhonda Stanley, TTAND's vice-president of new talent development, after she was inspired by a similar workshop that's conducted by The Travel Institute, Friisdahl told PAX.
Topics at TTAND's workshop were divided into four categories: tools for growing business, the lifetime value of a client, measuring post-conference success and how to remain current in the marketplace.
Friisdahl, as moderator, took questions from a room of more than 130 TTAND agents and their associates while Martin jotted down ideas on flip chart paper.
Talking points ran the gamut: starting with ways of personalizing TTAND’s backend, such as giving agents the ability to add a client’s nickname to automated emails so messages are more personalized or to set alerts when a client follow-up is due.
Those two above points, Friisdahl said, are items “I feel we can build really quickly.”
One suggestion Martin admired was for TTAND to create a program that lets agents send automatic thank-you or welcome home cards.
“We all intend to write welcome home cards or newsletters, but to have it automated would make things so much easier,” Martin told PAX.
While not all ideas from the crowd were given an immediate green light, such as one request to build a custom cruise booking engine (“The cost is enormous,” Friisdahl said, flat out), the Think Tank offered an intimate glimpse into the myriad projects TTAND is working on.
“We focus a lot on tools for agents. On making their lives easier,” Martin told PAX. “[The agents] had some interesting tools that they wanted and we’ll be working on those.”
Expert tips & success stories
All of this having being said, it was the tips on how to retain clientele, and agent success stories, that generated the most rousing rounds of applause.
As far as retaining clientele goes, some tips that were shared included:
- Not forgetting the power of human connections (one agent went as far as suggesting everyone “hug” their clients, if they feel comfortable doing so).
- Requesting hotels to leave welcome signs, or notes from agents, to their clients. It could be complimentary, depending on the hotel.
- Calling clients by telephone before and after their trip.
- Conducting an annual review with clients (what are their travel dreams for the year?)
There’s also a lot to be said about the power of putting yourself out there: one agent said she found success in sponsoring a veterans’ luncheon at a retirement home. That gesture, in turn, allowed her to maintain a ballot box and healthy stack of brochures on site, which led to bookings.
Having the right training and certification helps, too.
After attending last year’s TTAND conference, Frances Gertsch of Stewart Travel Group was stressed over her confidence in selling cruises. But after becoming a Certified Cruise Counsellor (CCC) with Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) – a qualification she advertises widely – the clients came sailing in.
“[Being certified] has been really successful for me,” Gertsch said.
Don't just forget everything
This year’s TTAND conference, it’s fifth annual, features more than 30 supplier presentations, special guest speakers and many one-on-one sessions.
So how does one ensure they’ll retain everything they’ve learned and apply themselves, post-conference?
“Have a buddy system,” Friisdahl advised. “It’s a great thing because it’s someone you’re accountable to. [Otherwise], you’ll say, ‘I’m giving up.’”
After all, as Lindsay Pearlman, co-president of Ensemble Travel Group, pointed out in a presentation on Thursday (May 2): “The difference between being ordinary and extraordinary is four per cent.”
(Four per cent being the amount of people who will leave a conference and actually do something with what they’ve learned).
Pearlman’s advice to TTAND conference attendees?
“Pick a lane,” he said. “Pick an area that you can be an absolute go-to expert in. Educate yourself as much as you can in that field. Make yourself that unquantifiable variable. Identify what success looks like for you as an individual. And with that, you’ll be successful.”
TTAND’s 2019 national conference, MORE™ U, runs ’till May 5th. Check back with PAX for more on location coverage!
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