TORONTO — Day three of TPI: Re-Ignite had more than just tips on how advisors can jumpstart their business – it dished out plenty of inspiration, too.
Passionate keynote sessions with Bruce Poon Tip, founder of G Adventures, and Matthew Upchurch, founder and CEO of Virtuoso, gave TPI’s travel advisors reason to re-evaluate their value in the midst of the pandemic. Both speakers were in agreement: the role of the travel advisor has never been more apparent, or important.
“When there’s ever been any emergency or disruption in the past, it’s always proven in that minute to everybody the importance of having a partner in a travel professional,” said Poon Tip. “There’ve been so many times people have said to me, ‘I wish I would’ve booked with a travel agent’ to help navigate the complexities of travel credits, refunds, credit card payments, trip cancellations, and legislation that’s changing as we speak. All of these things are so complicated for someone who just wanted to take a holiday. A travel agent helps you in these moments, to stay safe and navigate through these complications.”
Poon Tip, who earlier this year released a free ‘instabook’ called ‘Unlearn: The Year the Earth Stood Still’, considers the global pandemic as an opportunity for travel agents to transcend their relationships with customers from one simply between seller and buyer, to something more meaningful and impactful.
“If the only way you’re communicating with your customers is to continually sell them something, they’re going to treat you like every other salesperson, and that’s distant and not connected,” he said. “If you truly want to connect with your customers, you have to find the opportunity to make their lives better in some way. This pandemic is that opportunity, to be a light of information and create meaningful conversations with your customers.”
Upchurch offered similar advice, encouraging travel advisors to optimize this downtime to stay in contact with their clients, starting with their best ones.
“Your best clients aren’t just the ones who book the most; it’s the ones who believe in you the most, the ones who you’ve build the best relationships,” he said. “Now’s the time to work on your database and understand who your best clients are both financially and energetically, and by that I mean there are those clients who suck the life out of you. Now’s the time to get rid of them and go to the people you know believe in you then ask them for referrals.”
Though these past eight months have seen an unprecedented decline in bookings, this isn’t to say that travel isn’t happening at all. Upchurch said Virtuoso is seeing an uptick in multi-family travel, where separate families in one bubble take over entire properties.
Poon Tip confirmed that G Adventures has been running tours for the past two months: 36 trips in September and October, another couple dozen scheduled for November and approximately 15 in December.
“There’s going to be a short-term, mid-term and long-term strategy of building back. In the short-term there are going to be corridors that will be created, like the one between Australia and New Zealand, and Europe and Canada will eventually create a corridor,” he said. “So there are signs of life and you as travel advisors have to know that and supply that information to your customers.”
Day three of the conference also included an FIT Panel moderated by TPI’s President and CEO Zeina Gedeon and featuring some of TPI’s top supplier partners, including Collette, The Travel Corporation, Playa Hotels & Resorts, Goway and Tourcan Vacations. Topics ranged from luxury travel to airlines and commission payouts. Here are some highlights:
THE REBOUND OF LUXURY TRAVEL
Jeff Element, President of The Travel Corporation (TTC), said he strongly believes the luxury clientele will come back sooner than other categories. For one thing, luxury travellers haven’t been as affected by the pandemic as others (“they still have money in the bank and they’re still working if they haven’t already retired”) so there’ll be pent-up demand as people in this group are used to travelling on a regular basis.
But in addition to that, Element anticipates another group joining the ranks of affluent travellers.
“I think the middle class will join the luxury traveller, like the many people in Canada still working in hospitals and helping to keep our society going,” he said. “Maybe they’ve saved up money and have those bucket lists, and maybe they’ll reach out a little further into the luxury market in the next year or so, so that they can have some of those comforts and confidence while travelling. We see this category really taking off in the next year before other categories.”
When asked when he anticipates capacity to return to normal levels, Kevin Froemming, Executive Vice President & Chief Commercial Officer of Playa Hotels & Resorts, said it’s likely the company will have to wait until 2022 to see pre-COVID numbers.
The biggest issue, he said, is airlift.
“If you look at the D.R. right now, just last week we went from 75 flights to 92 flights coming into the destination every week. But the problem is, this time last year we had 320 flights coming in,” he said.
With airlift nowhere near normal levels, Playa is being cautiously optimistic and planning for a slower recovery during the first six to nine months of the year.
“If I had a magic ball, I would say we’re going to start building our business in Q1. If we’re lucky we’re going to get 50, 60, 70% of our business numbers as an industry in Q2 and hopefully build from there,” he added. “I think right now the smartest thing all of us can do is manage one quarter out right now. We’re making plans for the entire year but they’re extraordinarily flexible right now based on the ups and downs of the marketplace.”
DEALING WITH AIRLINES
Having a significant air consolidator business, Goway has undoubtedly faced many challenges these past eight months as a result of grounded airlines and cancelled flights around the world. Peter Lacy, Goway’s CFO, said the company’s airline department is working overtime, trying to deal with permutations, refunds, rebookings and credits
“Unfortunately, as you know, it’s not one size fits all – all the airlines have different rules and policies,” he said. “Dealing with each airline is a challenge as refunds happen both within the system and outside the system, and we’re dealing with certain airlines that might be in a restructure situation so you have that added complication.”
Lacy said the key to managing all these complications has been communication.
“What we’ve tried to do is be proactive from the outset and be in touch with our customers to let them know what the situation is with their file,” he added. “Fortunately, pretty much in all the cases with the airlines we’re dealing with, we’ve been able to protect the passenger and their ticket. But, of course, there will be a delay in terms of the client being able to utilize the services because airlines aren’t flying.
“In some cases we are able to refund but obviously there’s a significant amount of credits as well. We look forward to the day when we clear the backlog and start issuing new tickets.”
Gedeon applauded Collette for being TPI’s first partner to change their commission payout schedule on Sept. 15 and compensate travel advisors at time of deposit. When she asked Christian Leibl-Cote, Senior Vice President of Global Business why the company made such a bold move, he said Collette simply wanted to recognize the hard work of travel agents.
“There’s a lot of work being done prior to making the booking and prior to putting in the deposit, and we recognize that,” he said. “one thing we heard from agent feedback was that commission callbacks are probably the worst experience that can happen. We’ve decided we’re not going to do it and we’re going to take the risk on our side. So if ever the client decides to cancel or we cancel the tour for some reason, the agent gets to keep their commission.”
With such an agent-friendly approach to business, has Collette seen an increase in bookings these past few weeks?
“We have, we’ve had a few agents call us in tears to thank us for doing this,” added Leibl-Cote. “Since we started this in September, we’ve seen an increase in Canada in bookings and we continue to see an increase on a weekly basis. It’s been very good and something we want to continue to push for a very long time.”
TPI Re-Ignite, which kicked off on Nov. 2, ends today with more keynote sessions, advisor panels and a special awards ceremony. Over 400 TPI Travel Advisors are taking part in the four-day conference, of which Travelweek is the exclusive media partner.