TORONTO — Home-based travel advisor Kathleen Penner says one of her favourite things about being a travel advisor is helping not just her clients, but other agents too.
“I never think I compete with any other agent. There are enough clients for everyone. I love seeing other agents succeed. We really are in this together,” Penner tells Sphere.
Penner’s customer service skills were recently recognized by her local newspaper, The Hamilton Spectator, with two consumer appreciation awards.
Penner, who is affiliated with Cruise CEO, was awarded the top Diamond Award for Best Travel Advisor.
And her agency, Plenty of Sunshine Travel, nabbed the Diamond Award for the Best Travel Agency.
Meanwhile Penner is happy to share her marketing knowledge and other tips for surviving the pandemic to other agents, in this Q&A with Sphere.
Q. How long have you been in the travel industry, and when did you start Plenty of Sunshine Travel?
Penner: “I opened up Plenty of Sunshine Travel in early 2018 and that was my start in the industry. I needed to be home-based, so I spent hours researching and looking at the options out there. I ended up at TPI and enjoyed the support that the agents received. For years before I took the plunge, I was the ‘go-to’ person in my circle of friends whenever anyone wanted to plan a trip. I loved researching and booking their journeys, and then when they were away, I got to live vicariously through them. It was a win-win!”
Q. What % of your sales were cruise pre-pandemic, and how did the pandemic change that?
Penner: “By 2020 I had many multi-generational family cruise groups booked. Of course, those didn’t transpire because the world shut down due to COVID. So, like every other agent, bookings turned into cancellations, and I focused on client engagement and rebooking for 2021 and beyond. I would say that 95% or more of my sales were cruises. Pre- COVID, I only booked six all-inclusive vacations for my clients, and the rest were cruises. Most were family group cruises.”
Q. How have the past 20 months impacted your agency?
Penner: “I am a very positive person; I always try to find some good news mixed in with the not-so-good news. I would honestly say that when the world shut down, it put all of the agents on a level playing field, and we are all starting from scratch.
“With travel coming to a complete stop, I decided to work on my business. I feel so many of us work in our business every day. COVID had me working ON my business.
“I also switched host agencies; I am now a part of Cruise CEO. This has been incredibly beneficial. As a member of Cruise CEO, we get monthly focused cruise webinars with the cruise lines, as well as unprecedented support from head office. Caroline Hay (Cruise CEO’s President) is always just a phone call or email away. We are the only Virtuoso Cruise-centric host agency. I would not be where I am today if it were not for the support I am getting from my host agency.
“I refreshed all of my supplier training. I joined a Facebook group on enhancing group sales, learned SEO, joined pretty much every free class I could. I wanted knowledge so that when travel resumed, I was prepared and ready. I also took (and I am still taking classes) on Coursera. There are many free classes there. My favourites were learning how to do Facebook ads, learning SEO, getting comfortable with public speaking, as well as learning to write persuasively, and graphic design, and leadership classes. I also used the COVID downtime to get my CTA accreditation.
“So, I was not idle at all. This gave me what I needed – more confidence!
Q. You did a lot to market your agency during the pandemic, including refreshing your site, starting your own YouTube channel, weekly podcasts and more. What advice would you give to other advisors who think there’s no way they could ever learn to do that?
Penner: “I strongly disliked how my website looked and was laid out, it really looked DIY. Since I refocused on higher-end clients, my site needed a refresh. I got a new logo made (Fiverr), and I used my studies from Coursera and completely scrapped my site and redid the entire thing! I am mostly happy with it, but sites always need updating so I am sure I will keep adding to it.
“During the pandemic I also knew I had to do something to keep my clients dreaming. I reached out to an industry leader and told her I wanted to meet and record with my BDMs for a weekly YouTube show. I asked her, ‘Do you honestly think they will agree to do this for little ‘ol me? I am not a big name, I don’t have stellar record breaking sales.’ Her answer: “YES! Do it. The BDMs are there to increase sales in their region, there is no way they are going to say no.” So I sent an email out to a few of my BDMs and I was absolutely thrilled that instantly many responded with a resounding yes.
“My husband had the idea of using all the audio from the YouTube cruise chats and making them into podcasts. So, now I have a podcast (‘Cruising the Waves’) that goes out every week as well. It is the same effort as doing the YouTube videos since they are used for the podcast as well.
“My helpful tip is, just do it! Don’t be worried or be fearful of looking stupid. Be your authentic self and people will watch and want to book with you. I have received quite a few calls from people across North America saying I saw your video on YouTube and want to book with you. It does happen, and it WILL happen to you. But only if you put yourself out there.
“The cruise chat is recorded on a computer, we use free editing software, free music for my intro and even the program I use to upload my podcast, Anchor, is free. I upload to Anchor and they put it out on all the available channels. This is rather easy to do! Anyone can do it.
“One last tip: I feel hashtags have a big impact. If you hashtag every single social media post, then you can do a call to action similar to what I do. I put on the description of my YouTube Videos “Search Facebook and Instagram for #PlentyofSunshineTravel. Then when they do that, they see all posts that are mine alone.”
Q. What feedback have you been hearing from your clients?
Penner: “My clients love the podcast and YouTube show. They miss travel and are eager to get back out and do it longer and in better accommodation than previously. Whereas my clients typically would have done a seven-day cruise with a balcony room, now I am seeing my clients choosing a 12-day cruise in a suite.”
Q. What do you love most about being a travel advisor?
Penner: “I love that I can make my clients’ cruise dreams a reality. I am a full service agent. I make sure everything I can help them with, I do. I also love helping other travel agents. I never think I compete with any other agent. There are enough clients for everyone. I love seeing other agents succeed. We really are in this together.”