The strength in numbers: 7 tips from industry experts on how to sell groups

This story originally ran in the January 23, 2020 issue of Travelweek magazine. To get Travelweek delivered to your agency for free, subscribe here.

TORONTO — One of the fastest growing sports in North America is one that you may have never even heard of. But if Toronto-based Uniglobe Bon Voyage travel agent Lou Anne Fradsham has her way, everyone will be playing pickleball soon enough.

Fradsham is being credited for booking Sandals’ first group of pickleballers out of Canada. Scheduled for next November at Sandals South Coast (one of two Sandals properties to house a pickleball court, with more to come), the group will largely comprise members of Fradsham’s Markham Women’s Slo-Pitch League, which serves as a natural client base for the veteran agent. With over 24 years of experience, Fradsham, an avid sports fan and athlete, considers herself a bit of a groups expert who has booked everything from weddings to sports tournaments.

“Sandals has been trying to get me and the ladies to come play ball, however only Bahamas and Turks & Caicos have slo-pitch. We’ve already done the Bahamas and Turks is priced too high,” she tells Travelweek. “When I was at my Sandals training last September and heard that they had pickleball, the lights went on as I knew most of the ball ladies play pickleball, too. And so I organized a tournament.”

Is it really this easy to book a group? Well, yes and no. According to Fradsham, booking a group like this “takes a lot of work in the beginning”, but once the first group is successful, word will get out and clients will likely want to participate in another tournament.

The first step, says Maureen Barnes-Smith, Director of Sales & Marketing at Unique Vacations Canada, the worldwide representatives for Sandals & Beaches Resorts, is to find out what everybody has in common.

“It could be skydiving, scuba diving or, in Lou Anne’s case, pickleball,” she tells Travelweek. “From there it will spin off into individual travel since most people who book in a group end up booking their own individual trip. Selling groups is the fastest way to increase your business. If you put the same amount of effort into a group as you would into an individual booking, you’re going to get five, 10, 15 rooms and incrementally add to your bottom line.”

To help agents grow their groups business, we asked a few travel industry experts for their tips on what they should – and shouldn’t – do when finding, booking and finalizing groups. Here’s what they had to say:

Find pied pipers.

All it takes is one person to lead an entire pack. Said Daniela Matera, Manager, Group Sales & Services at Globus family of brands, “Having someone who has the respect of their peers and is well connected in the community can really help grow your group business.”

Ask around church groups, social clubs and sports teams, scour Facebook groups and message boards to find prominent members. Another good idea is to partner with business owners and offer a revenue share in exchange for escorting the group. For example, if you’re looking to put together a foodie group, approach the owner of a bakery or wine bar to see if they’d be interested in working together.

Find a good supplier.

Cindy Almond, owner of the home-based Romance and Foodie Travel Agency and part of The Travel Agent Next Door network, admits that when it comes to customizing a large family group, trying to promote it can be a “scary proposition” as it would be akin to creating an FIT. “It takes a lot of confidence,” she says, “but if you can find a supplier that lowers the risk factor, it isn’t so difficult to set up.”

Almond works with Transat Holidays for South groups as well as Goway Travel for its low deposit structures and the fact that it allows you to postpone deposits to a future trip should things not pan out.

Plus, Goway offers several standard group incentives for agents throughout the year, notes Barbara Norton, VP Groups at Goway Travel. This year, the company is offering $100 onto an agent’s Goway Rewards Card with a deposit on any air/land package group of 10 or more passengers, and up to $15 per person in marketing support dollars on travelled land or air/land groups.

And, as always, Goway’s sales team is available to assist with any group booking. “Our group sales coordinator team is the ‘best in the business’, with strong destination and tour planning expertise,” adds Norton. “Our volume and longevity make us very competitive, and we have many BDMs in the field that assist with presentations and webinars.”

Pick a niche.

A common mistake that agents make is going too big too fast. Says Matera, “Start small and focus your efforts on one tour, one departure to ensure that it is successful. Giving clients too many options can definitely affect the likeliness of the group materializing.”

Breanne Wray, Team Leader and Group Procurement and Product Specialist at Flight Centre, agrees. “Try to start small – it may be tricky to get your bearings if you book 100 people the first time around.”

Wray suggests picking a niche, learning everything about it, including which suppliers to use, ways to promote it and ideal destinations/routings, and then striving to be the best at it.

“Specialty groups are a huge sector of group travel, like sports, schools and hobbyists, for example,” she adds. “Agents can contact local school and sports teams to see if they travel regionally or internationally. There are also a number of clubs and hobbyist groups that travel together annually, like gardeners who travel around the world for tulip festivals.”

Maintain relationships.

Experience has taught Wray that one of the biggest mistakes an agent can make is not taking the time to qualify their group. “No two groups are the same so it’s important to ensure that all of their wants and needs are clearly communicated from the beginning,” she says.

Why? Because relationships matter. “You’ll likely be working with your group lead for six months or more, so it’s important to foster that relationship and always keep in contact with the current status of the boking,” says Wray. “This is another mistake that can be easily made as agents feel they don’t want to bother their clients. But most clients are doing a million other things, like planning a wedding, so they’ll want to know that you are in control of one of the biggest components.”

Give yourself enough time.

If there’s one thing that Norton wants all agents to remember when booking groups, it’s to give themselves enough lead-in time to plan, market, confirm and sell them. The rule of thumb, she says, is the more exotic and costly the destination, the longer lead-in time you’ll need. Typically, for a Goway Group, 10-15-months is the minimum from start to departure.

Spend money.

The old adage is true: you have to spend money to make money. Almond, who’s never been afraid to invest in her business, encourages all agents to find opportunities to get their name out there and stand out. Register for small and/or large shows, invest in ongoing education, marketing and promotions, make business cards, create a website. Chances are the money you put into your business, you’ll get it back and then some.

Do your research.

Stay abreast of what your competitors are doing, says Norton, and equally important, know your market. “Do a survey and send it out to your database to find where people want to travel to and what their budgets are,” says Norton. “It’s also a good idea to monitor competitor activity to see what they’re marketing in terms of costing, destination and what target market they’re going after.”

And at the very least, talk to those closest to you. “Where do your friends and relatives want to go?” adds Norton. “That is always a good indication of what is in the minds of the travelling public.”

Get travel news right to your inbox!