The Art of Nurturing Relationships in the Travel Industry
By: Sandy Saburn, CTIE

This week at Gifted Travel Network we are hosting “Vendor Lounge”. This is a unique event that gives our travel advisors the chance to interact with vendor partners. Over the course of 3 days, the travel agents will hear from 30 different vendors including wholesalers, hotels, yacht charter companies, cruise lines, and destinations. The goal of this event is not only to update the agents on what is going on with the vendor but for the vendor to get to know the agents too.

At GTN we believe that relationships are at the core of a successful travel business. This is not a transaction-based business. It is an industry built on partnership. It is a two-way street and both the vendor and the agent community have a critical role to play.

As a travel advisor, one of the most important things you can do to build your business is to get to know your supplier partners. Do they know who you are? Reach out directly to the representative that serves your agency and your area (that may be two different people). The first time you interact with this person should not be when you have a problem or need a favor.

A key to having successful relationships is to be strategic about the partners you work with. While you should never put all your eggs in one basket, you shouldn’t spread yourself too thin either. The most successful travel agents have specific companies they work with. They don’t attempt to be experts in everything because it isn’t possible.

Instead, you should have a core group of vendor partners you work with. When selecting vendor partners, I encourage you to think not just about what you have been selling, but what you want to sell. Many agents have been re-evaluating their businesses over the past year with a goal of working with their ideal client in the future rather than just what comes along. (If that’s you – HOORAY! That is an important step in having a successful – and enjoyable – business.)

If there is a product you want to sell, reach out to the representative and ask to set up a call. (Contact information for reps can usually be found on the travel agent site.) Tell them your goals and ask them to share some tips that they have seen work for other agents. They will be happy to share this with you (if they aren’t, find another vendor because that’s not a partner).

One thing I hope will come out of this pandemic is that travel advisors start demanding more from their vendor partners. Don’t reward those who aren’t good partners with more business! If you work with a vendor and they steal your clients (and we all know who those companies are), don’t do business with them any longer. There are other options!

A word of caution: the one thing you do NOT need to do right now is to take every training course under the sun just in case a client asks for a product. That’s not an effective use of your time. You should instead be deepening your knowledge of those products and vendor partners that will be of most benefit to your ideal client. (If you don’t know who your ideal client is that is the FIRST thing to figure out.)

Our vendor partners are doing some incredible things with our travel advisors to build business. There are a lot of virtual travel nights happening. Clients are comfortable now with Zoom and are happy to get on a Zoom session to take an Italian cooking class, learn about French wines, or learn about the history of a destination. The best virtual events are those that are engaging to the client, not just someone talking about something.

While these aren’t sales pitches, you can include an offer. Many agents are doing these virtual travel events and sharing information about a group trip they are escorting. But it isn’t about pushing to sell travel. It is about deepening your relationship with existing clients, building relationships with potential clients, and demonstrating that you are a subject matter expert.

When you talk to the reps of the various travel companies you work with, ask them what type of virtual events they have done with other agencies that have been successful. Many of them are very happy to be guest speakers at your event. Make sure you are involved in the event and don’t just let them run the show completely. Remember you want to have time to build relationships with the participants too.

A good place to start with all this is to look at the last couple of years and identify the top 10-15 vendors you have worked with. These might be tour companies, cruise lines, wholesalers, or resort/hotel chains. Evaluate the relationship you have with each company. Do you know the rep well? Do they know you? Has the relationship been a productive one? If the relationship has been a challenge, find a new partner. There are lots of them out there.

A word of caution: don’t keep a partner you don’t enjoy working with because you think “that’s what my clients want to book.” You are the expert here and your opinion should carry a lot of weight with what the client ends up choosing. If you are just a “booking agent” and not providing advice and guidance to the clients, I encourage you to take a look at your business model. You’re probably working very hard for very little money. Experts make more because the riches are in the niches!

After that, look for any areas where you might need to fill in with additional vendor partners. Now is a great time to connect with them.

Having great relationships requires nurturing. It is the job of both the travel agency community and that of the vendor community to make sure that the relationship works for both sides.