The average travel agent who builds a book of business based on individual travelers and families eventually hears about how lucrative group travel can be. Many dive in, selling their first speculative tour, or developing a trip with an affinity group.
Then reality sets in. Two dozen clients, all leaving at the same time, but all with different needs, come crashing into the agent’s life. Through trial-by-fire, these agents learn that group travel isn’t easy if you don’t have the right processes and systems to make you efficient.
Amoira Johnson, CSS, a group travel and events specialist, conducted her first group trip about 15 months after she became a travel agent (in September 2016), a destination wedding with 134 people.
“I was, thinking, ‘Volume, that’s great.’ I went into it blind, not knowing how much it takes to get 134 people from point A to point B, coordinating all of their activities,” said Johnson, owner of Travel with Me Amoira, a Cruise Planners franchise in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Johnson survived, and today, her agency is currently working on 22 active groups, including family cruises, school reunions, two destinations weddings, and a vow renewal.
“The amount of work for an agent managing a group increases more than incrementally because the size of the group and the related tasks are correlated,” said David Chait, co-founder and CEO of Travefy.
“Communicating with everyone, ensuring everyone has their travel documents, sharing details with suppliers accurately, all can reduce an agent’s efficiency,” said Chait, whose company’s software is especially popular with group travel specialists because it allows agents to automate and streamline a number of time-consuming tasks, like itinerary building. “If you’re able to capture efficiencies, you can unlock group travel profits.”
“Group travel is both exciting and intimidating,” said Claire Gilbert, owner of Fine Tours and Cruises, in Alexandria, Virginia. “It’s nice to have that much business concentrated on one destination and in a narrow timeframe. But you have to enter this understanding it is going to be a lot of work. Every member thinks they are the only client – and the most important client, too – so developing the efficiencies to make them feel that way is very important.”
Chait and several agents talked with Travel Market Report about group travel, and they provided these tips to make your business more efficient and effective.
Streamline your communications
One-off conversations, either verbally or in writing, will greatly diminish your efficiency, said Johnson, who leverages closed Facebook groups extensively. “My clients are from all over, and this eliminates me having to manage all of the different time zones. They can go and see what is going on at their convenience,” Johnson said.
“It’s extremely time-consuming, 60-70 people asking you the same questions all of the time,” said Gilbert. Like Johnson, she uses Facebook groups to communicate news and answer questions. Using tools like these also helps build camaraderie in advance of the group physically meeting each other, Gilbert said.
Larissa Parks, an independent travel advisor based in Waldorf, Maryland, agreed. “The key to a great group trip is to create a sense of community. That means creating those spaces where everyone can communicate in advance,” Parks said.
For group members who don’t have a Facebook account, typically more elderly clients, Gilbert relies more on phone and email. Gilbert and Parks also recommend tools like Zoom meetings for video and web conferencing.
Learn Google Sheets or Excel
Every group trip should have its own profit and loss statement, agents told Travel Market Report, linking what your clients will be doing on the trip with your expenses and revenues. This is where having a solid foundation in tools like Microsoft Excel or Tableau can help keep an agent organized.
“It may look like you have 100 people on the same itinerary, staying at the same hotel, dining at the same restaurants, but you have 100 people making important personal choices, like choosing different day excursions. That’s where you run into organizational complexities, and the pain points arise,” Chait said.
“Spreadsheets are my friend,” said Gilbert, who uses them “for everything” from budgeting to calculating costs, contingencies, and overall group pricing. “I came around to it over time, as my smaller groups grew larger and the logistics became more complicated,” she said.
For example, Gilbert tracks rooming lists in her spreadsheets, pre- and/or post-trip hotel requests and bookings, as well as insurance policy purchases.
As the group gets closer to departure date, complexity tends to increase. This often triggers final decisions or changes in client choices. In many cases, one individual’s choices can trigger new work for an agent.
For something like ground transfers, it may take just one individual’s new choice to put you over the capacity on a bus you’ve hired. Having spreadsheets tracking in one place what clients are doing helps keep Gilbert on top of any choices she might have to make.
“It’s inevitable. You get that call; ‘I hear so and so is getting airport transfers. Can I get them?’” Gilbert said.
Travefy is reviewing offering agents a tool to enable group trip members to make more custom choices directly online.
“These triggers and caveats are the reality of the business. If one client says yes to this, then you may need to do that,” Chait said. “A system that shows you you’re over capacity on something like a tour bus can help you avoid problems in front of your clients, and save you a lot of embarrassment.”
“Not everybody can handle the volume of group travel, and if you mess something up, you could look like a failure to every other person on the trip,” Johnson said.
Automate and outsource as much as you can
Depending on which CRM and booking tools you use, familiarize yourself with ways those tools can automate tasks like invoicing, workflows, and payment schedules.
Gilbert and the others highly recommend working with tools that offer embedded forms on your website, where you can automatically capture as much information as possible, and reduce or eliminate manual data entry.
Parks uses Dubsado for a good deal of her back-of-the-office tasks, and is exploring how the tool can embed client portals into her website so she can have a more personal, ongoing dialogue with individual customers. “These private pages can be opened and closed depending on the stage of the booking process, which will help me a lot,” Parks said.
While Parks is a big fan of technology and software, she also creates a hard copy file for each of her clients for back up. “I’m old school, too. If I have a conversation, an email, it goes in their folder. It can be tedious, but if my power goes down, I can pull out my files and have hard copies of everything.”
Finally, all of the agents that Travel Market Report interviewed highly recommend forming strong personal relationships with local DMCs. Having that rapport to quickly solve problems and offload tasks can take a lot of work off a travel agent’s shoulders.