TORONTO — The news reports coming in from Grand Bahama and the Abaco Islands are heartbreaking, and the images even more so.
CANCUN — Flemming Friisdahl prefers that The Travel Agent Next Door agents call him ‘Flemming’, not boss, chief or leader.
The founder of TTAND acknowledges those titles are compliments, but “I don’t ever want to lose track of what we’re there for — we’re there to serve them”.
Some 60 agents flew to Cancun May 31 to June 7 for TTAND’s first annual meeting and FAM, held at Moon Palace Golf & Spa Resort.
It was a chance to recap what has been achieved since TTAND’s inception just over a year ago and look at what’s on the horizon. The host agency is rolling out a lead generation program, mentor program and new agent program, as well as a wedding program on its website and health benefits for agents.
When TTAND first started out, some agents immediately came onboard, while others were in a wait-and-see mode. “We had agents that said, ‘let’s just see if you’re here in a year’,” Friisdahl told Travelweek. Now that a year has passed, “they’re seeing we’re growing; we’re adding more staff, we’re adding more programs.”
Currently, TTAND has more than 150 agents on board.
“No question we’re getting a lot more senior agents now — way, way more senior agents from when we started — because people are seeing what we’re doing,” said Friisdahl.
While he says he isn’t sure if TTAND has shaken up the host agency model, he believes it offers something different. “We put skin in the game — most agencies charge the same fee as we do, but then they charge extra for everything. We include the marketing, both electronic and paper marketing, (and) we give them a fully bookable website with six booking engines.”
TTAND has launched a new agent program, for example, which provides an opportunity for new agents to be mentored by an experienced agent at TTAND. While TTAND will provide basic training — such as selling skills and product knowledge — the new agent will be paired with a mentor after completing online learning modules.
The mentoring program is a unique way of attracting new agents into the industry. “It’s hard to recruit young people into the industry,” said Rhonda Stanley, vice-president of talent development with TTAND. “In the next 10 years, 80% of travel agents will retire — there’s never been a better time to get into the industry.”
So what’s in it for agents? Aside from the joy of witnessing a mentee become a successful agent, mentors will receive 50% of all commissions over the two-year mentoring relationship, as well as the $199 start-up fee. At the time of the meeting, a dozen people had already signed up.
“I think the new generation of agents will start at the age of 35 to 40; I don’t think they’ll start at the age of 22,” said Friisdahl. “They want a new career, they want to spend more time with their family, but they also love travelling and love selling travel.”
The lead generation program — which guarantees agents a certain number of leads in areas such as cruises, wedding packages and ITC packages — is a big incentive, he added.
Another host agency, TPI, plans to launch a new model this summer, but Friisdahl isn’t too concerned about being copied by competitors. In fact, if other host agencies copy the TTAND model, he’d take it as a compliment.
“Hopefully we just keep doing it better,” he said. And that means pumping out six to seven new programs every year. He hopes to hit 200 agents by the end of this year, but at that point he expects TTAND’s success will be measured by hitting targets based on sales — not number of agents.
Air Canada Vacations flew TTAND agents to Cancun on its leisure airline, Air Canada rouge, and hosted a red-and-white party (and cocktail competition) after site inspections at Bahia Principe resorts in the Riviera Maya.
In a training session for agents, Kristin Erz, area sales manager with Air Canada Vacations, pointed out some of the benefits of working with ACV: connecting flights from 66 Canadian cities; flexible getaways from three to 30 nights, ideal for groups; as well as the return of PriceGuard for the 2015/16 winter season. Agents can also earn Agent Rewards with ACV & ME, its new agent program that launched last November. Where agents used to have to log individual bookings, “the new program offers more flexibility and it’s automatic,” said Erz.
TravelBrands announced it’s making changes and enhancements to its website. “We have hundreds of thousands of hotels and attraction tickets — there is a lot of competition, hence why we’re looking at changing the way we sell and how you book it,” said Erminia Nigro, business development manager with TravelBrands, adding that these changes will be coming in the near future.
And Star Statulevicius, global contact centre operations manager for G Adventures, educated TTAND agents on the benefits of selling adventure travel. “Soft adventure is where the industry is moving today,” she said. “It could be taking a cooking class or visiting a school — it doesn’t have to be hiking or white-water rafting.”
One of the benefits of selling adventure travel, she said, is its resiliency in the market. World crises, such as 9/11 or SARS, haven’t stopped adventure travellers even when other travel sectors are experiencing a downturn.
And it attracts high-value markets (the average adventure traveller is 48 years old). “On an average trip you’re looking at $3,000 a person — it’s not a $200 backpack trip,” said Statulevicius. “You’re talking about high-end safaris or trips to Antarctica.” It also supports local economies and encourages sustainable tourism practices.
Comfort-class trips are ideal for ‘crossover’ clients looking for something different. Argentina is a great destination for those clients “because you hike and then sit down with a beautiful glass of malbec and steak,” said Statulevicius. G-Packs provide access to online marketing resources to help agents promote regions or travel styles to relevant clients.