TORONTO — A supplier’s BDMs are a lifeline for travel agents – and that’s true even in the best of times, not to mention a pandemic. Never before have agents had so many questions – and never before have BDMs stepped up to help their travel agent partners any way they can.
Travelweek reached out to four suppliers – an all-inclusive resort company, a travel insurance firm, a tour operator and a cruise line – to get their take on how the role of the BDM has changed during the pandemic, and what they’re hearing from agents.
The pandemic has forced BDMs to get creative with technology, says Guy Archambault, BDM, Unique Vacations Canada Inc., affiliate of Unique Travel Corp., worldwide representatives of Sandals Resorts and Beaches Resorts.
“Think about this for a minute … the immediate impact of 9/11 on the travel industry lasted for about four days but this COVID-19 crisis is over a year long and counting,”says Archambault. “For myself and my Sandals & Beaches BDM colleagues across Canada, we really took our creativity up to the next level, to think ‘outside of the box’, to try new things so we could achieve new things. We had to quickly recreate our roles and use tools that we never had to use before, in order to meet the constraints of the pandemic.”
That said, nothing beats a good old-fashioned phone call, says Archambault. “I still make daily phone calls to advisors in my area – sometimes we talk business, sometimes we don’t – but a simple gesture of asking ‘how are you doing?’ goes a long way during this long year of the pandemic.”
Read on for more from Archambault as well as Susan Lawson, BDM, Allianz Global Assistance; Tony Perdomo, Senior BDM, Eastern Canada and U.S.A., Exodus Travels; and Michelle Sutter VP, North America Sales, Holland America Line.
BDM – Montréal, Gatineau and Northern Québec, Unique Vacations Canada Inc., Affiliate of Unique Travel Corp, worldwide representatives of Sandals Resorts and Beaches Resorts
“Like so many, I’m still connecting with travel advisors in my region online until we can meet again in person (hopefully soon!). I’m very active on social media and always try to make someone’s day a little brighter with a laugh or a smile. So, if that means filming a video outside – during the middle of winter with -20 temperatures, standing in front of my Sandals-wrapped car talking about the benefits of this free program for travel advisors – then I will do it. Virtual events with travel advisors and their clients are still popular and a great way to keep the travel dream alive right now. Webinars continue to keep me busy, and I do them both live and pre-recorded. Lately, I’ve noticed that taped webinars do very well, with more views, because the advisors and/or their clients can watch it on their own schedule.
“There’s no question that the pandemic has made advisors take a close look, a serious look at their businesses. What is working? What isn’t working? Just like BDMs, travel advisors have also had to adjust the way they conduct business. Many have chosen to change their business model, such as moving from a storefront location to home-based or even completely switching niche markets on what products they want to focus on and sell. I’m definitely seeing that with travel agencies in my region who, before the pandemic, were 100% focused on cruises, but are now very open to a high-end, luxury all-inclusive product like Sandals. I have to admit, it’s been one of the unexpected benefits of the pandemic!
“As soon as Monsieur Trudeau says ‘OK, we’re open’, travel advisors know they will be busy dealing with the tsunami of bookings. Right now, it’s just a question of ‘when’ and not ‘if’.”
BDM, Allianz Global Assistance
“We’re staying in regular contact with agents across Canada, be it through one-on-one check-ins, communications related to product, service or industry updates or through events like training sessions or virtual conferences. There is a continued sense of uncertainty regarding travel advisories and requirements. Like us, our partners want to make sure their clients have the right travel insurance, particularly as it relates to COVID-19. We empathize with our partners and are here to help navigate the rapidly changing rules and guidelines to ensure clients are protected for essential travel now and when travel opens more fully in the future. Partners also have access to our dedicated Agency Services team for any product or policy, point of sale, technical or training-related questions. We continue to be cautiously optimistic that travel will return to pre-pandemic levels in the near future. In the meantime we are fully committed to supporting our partners and clients through these challenging times.”
Senior BDM, Eastern Canada and U.S.A., Exodus Travels
“I am connecting with agents via Zoom, regular calls and even going for walks with them, when the weather is nice of course. Much better to see them face-to-face, rather than an email.
“Most of my troubleshoots are accommodating existing bookings so they turn into rebookings vs cancellations. People still want the Exodus experience, and with the assistance of the agent, we make them feel comfortable in leaving the deposit with us and choosing a trip that is suitable fo them. We are happy to do anything to get the rebookings vs refunds. Most clients are NOT asking for refunds on our end, because they see the experience as something they truly want and they’re willing to wait for it.
“One thing that I am helping out with the most is keeping clients engaged. Last year, everyone was doing Zoom presentations … but now, almost a FULL year later, it’s hard to continue doing these. The fresh air comes when we present how unique our product is and with great images and videos, their travel dreams just got bigger.
“I often do trivia games in addition to the company info and showcasing some trips. It’s not a time to be pushy for sales, people don’t want that and they’ll see it in the first few minutes. That is why I often look at these as Inspirational talks where I fill your open mind with new ways to see the world. The agents love this too as some are recorded and can be seen later, and some are live on Facebook, and it really captivates the energy we co-create virtually.
“When we do connect, I do hear from them their concerns about their finances and other hardships. It’s not easy being in this industry in the ‘Grounding 20s’ (patent pending!), so I show compassion and empathy by hearing them out and offer some positivity because we ALL know that many will travel because it is now a need vs a luxury. The great times are ahead and you’ll see why we had to go through what we had to. It’s hard to see the bigger picture when you are by yourself, so when we connect. I try to give them the drone view and that often works.
“I know it’s a sensitive subject, many are facing closures, layoffs and so on, so I am careful on how I approach each conversation Talk about being super present. But with the right intentions, our conversations always end up with a great positive feeling.”
VP, North America Sales, Holland America Line
“Holland America Line has developed new strategies to connect with travel advisors during the last year as in person meetings have come to a halt. Even though we are unable to meet in person, our goal is to be more connected than ever.
“We quickly created a task force to develop new techniques to authentically engage with our travel partners. We have shifted our focus to be more present through virtual connection methods. I personally hosted a number of webinars focused on more aspirational content such as: How to Use Storytelling to Build your Business or How to Open the Doors to Genuine Presence, Positivity and Community to help travel advisors move from surviving to thriving.
“Our BDMs have been connecting with travel partners through hosting Facebook Live events, curating short YouTube videos, holding virtual office hours, engaging in social media and more. We have also increased the cadence of our outbound phone calls, newsletters and training webinars to offer a variety of connection methods.
“Holland America Line will soon be launching a Sales Tool Kit that will feature curated destination driven content that advisors can share with their clientele. The Sales Tool Kit will include social media content, videos and other collateral.
“While this year has been full of challenges, it has also given us the opportunity to connect in new and creative ways. We have strengthened our partnerships through authentic connection, greater collaboration and innovative thinking. As we look towards the future, we are hopeful to host in person meetings with our travel partners again soon.”