Chances are when you hear from your travel agent, it might be to see if they can help you with a getaway for your upcoming birthday or to check in after you returned from that vacation trip to Italy they helped you plan to perfection. But that’s changing.
Agents, or as more of them today prefer, travel advisors or designers, are taking a page from your favorite luxury brands as they seek to beat back the efforts from online travel agencies in catering to affluent travelers.
While these smaller, local businesses don’t have the billions of dollars that are spent annually by the likes of Expedia and Travelocity for marketing, they have something the behemoths don’t. That’s personal relationships with their customers.
A hot trend is using local events to strengthen those ties, which also underscore to travel suppliers the value of these retail agencies. Recently, several agencies that are part of the Signature Travel Network talked to me about how they are using some of the same strategies as high-end fashion and jewelry companies to woo customers.
Preferred Travel of Naples, Inc., has become known for its annual Travel Showcase, which has raised over $200,000 for local charities since it started in 2007. According to Karen Pickrum, the agency’s director of marketing, planning begins more than a year in advance to confirm more than 50 travel partners that attend from all over the world.
“It’s an informational and educational evening where guests can personally speak one on one to our travel partners while they enjoy cocktails and hors d’oeuvres. Each year, a local charity is selected to benefit from 100% of the ticket sales. The by invitation only event generates much-needed revenue for the selected charity,” she says.
In another example, WhirlAway Travel hosted its Tailor Made Travel event last spring with a focus on luxury travel. Its COO Jamie Jones says, “We invited Abercrombie & Kent and Regent Seven Seas Cruises to present with a focus on custom travel experiences.”
Formal invitations included a cocktail reception where a professional stylist gave tips on packing and travel style. Over 50 agency customers were greeted with a champagne welcome and then personally escorted into the event. Guests each received swag bags like celebrities do, theirs filled with packing tips and travel information.
“It was the first time we put on an event that we actually received thank you cards from guests for inviting them saying it was beyond expectations,” said Jones.
Christina Turrini, a leisure travel consultant with Frosch and an A-List Top Agent as selected by Travel + Leisure specializes in Tahiti. She says, “One of my favorite client events was the one I had on the Freda B sailboat. I invited VIP clients to learn about and celebrate the inauguration of the Aranui 5, freighter to paradise, French Polynesia. We marked the event by dressing the Freda B up in Polynesian decor including flying the Tahitian flag.” She adds, “We sailed into the bay and parked in McCovey Cove to view the San Francisco Giants game on their Polynesian Heritage night…the event was a huge success.”
Monika Leuenberger, the owner of Avenues of the World Travel in Flagstaff, Arizona, said to celebrate her agency’s 25th Anniversary she invited 80 of her top clients to a private event and got 70 positive response and “everyone showed up!”
For the venue, she used an observatory with dinner catered by one of the top restaurants and included short presentations by Regent Seven Seas and Ker & Downey followed by an evening of stargazing.
There was a discussion on why world cruises are great values and there was a discussion on which trips are best for solo travelers. Based on feedback she’s planning a future event that will provide tips on to take, manage and showcase photos partnering with a local professional photographer.
Cathie Lentz Fryer, president of CTA Travel does something you’ll next get from those online travel agencies. She hosts wine and cheese parties for customers who have already booked a group trip. They invite their family and friends to hear about it. To increase the excitement, she distributes the travel documents during the evening.
These events hosted in one of her team members’ homes and typically draw between 30 to 60 guests. She says, “We do not do a hard sell at this event but after we have always secured new clients and the booking ratio for new business is between 60% and 75%!”
Alex Sharpe, the president and CEO of Signature Travel Network, says the approach of member agencies is to get consumers focused on why they are traveling. While he believes artificial intelligence can help advisors help clients, he says the benefit is it will allow them to focus more on the human element and building even stronger ties with clients.
“What are your customers saying about you and what do you want them to say about you,” he told an audience of his agency owners recently, continuing, “I don’t want them to say, ‘(My advisor) got me a good price.’ I want them to say you made a difference.” Member agencies believe local events are one way they can get to know you better and help you make your travel dreams come true.