How to build a successful home-based travel agency: Interview 4

Welcome back to Andavo Travel’s blog series, “How to Build a successful home-based travel agency.” Each month, we interview one of our Andavo-affiliated travel advisors, in hopes that sharing their success stories will prove useful to those travel advisors new to the industry.

For our fourth interview, we spoke to Donna Evans of Team Travel, an Andavo Travel affiliate located in Denver, Colorado, and a member of the Andavo Travel President’s Club, which recognizes those with top sales in our network. She has been in the business for over 20 years and specializes in Australia, New Zealand, the South Pacific, and Africa.

We asked her the following questions:

1. What is your #1 tip for a travel advisor just starting out in the industry, on how to build a successful home-based travel agency?

Use your resources! Webinars, your peers, find a mentor, travel suppliers, Virtuoso training. Any training you can get, really. The more you know, the better the salesperson you are. It’s so much easier to create an itinerary when you know the destination. I wish I would have had a mentor when I started; that would have been nice.

2. In your early years, how did you build up your clientele?

Friends. Referrals. Slowly. [laughs]

And then I joined a leads club. This is a local club where they will have one mortgage broker, one real estate agent, one financial advisor, one travel agent, and so on. One person from any profession in the club, and then you all pass each other referrals from your respective networks. It was harder for me because I wasn’t working in a travel agency, so I relied more on family and friends. I wasn’t in the club for very long, but one of the mortgage company members in the club asked if I wanted to do the travel for his branch, and then that led to a second branch, and then an incentive group. When he started his own business, his new company started coming to me for everything – both corporate and leisure travel.

So the leads club ended up being great for me, but if you join one, be sure you’re in the right one. Ali Lassen’s Leads Club is a big one, as well as LeTip. Be sure to ask about fees and requirements before joining. Leads clubs can be great for getting your name out there – even just within the group itself.

The Chamber of Commerce has been good for other agents. This could be a good option, but I have not tried it.

3. Why do you think you’ve become so successful? What keeps your clients coming back to you over and over, vs. using the internet or a different travel advisor?

I feel that if you treat your clients the way you want to be treated, that’s always going to work for you. I make a point of trying to listen, and then provide great service, knowledge, and expertise. I’ve also become friends with so many of my clients – we do dinners, travel together, etc. Getting to know my client is huge for me.

One of my clients loves snorkeling/diving, and I heard about a really cool sardine run in South Africa that I was able to tell him about, and then book for him. I’ve gotten to know my clients’ interests, tastes, and budgets, so I can easily gauge if an itinerary is going to fit or not.

When listening to my clients, I try to listen to hear the things they don’t say, too. It’s hard to do, but I feel that’s what a good advisor will do. That’s how I build a business and create sales. It isn’t always what they say and ask for, but what I might suggest based on what I’ve learned about them. Getting to know your clients, their families, where they have friends and family that they want to visit, or maybe they want to do a trip altogether, like a cruise. “I know your family lives in Minneapolis, have you ever thought of doing an Alaska cruise together?” I watch for that supplier promotional email to come across and try to think of a client match.  They feel special that I thought of them when I forward it along with a personal note. This is not a big BCC email blast with undisclosed recipients. It’s a personal email from me, the advisor, saying “Look what I found for YOU.” It’s that relationship building that brings them back again and again, and then their friends call you, and then before you know it, you need another office space and agents to help you.

4. What are some of the behind-the-scenes things you do, that the client doesn’t even know about, that make the trip seamless?

I always give my clients a cruise gift, because I think it’s expected and easy to do. I always notify a Virtuoso hotel that my clients are coming and that they are VIPs. I sometimes will send a “welcome home” gift, if it was a real luxury trip or for a special occasion. I make sure my tour operators know if it’s a special occasion as well. One of the hotels I called to let them know about a client’s birthday said they charge $30 for a cake, and I said no thank you, but they ended up doing something anyway. Knowing the suppliers really helps, especially when you do a lot of business with them. Then when you do ask for something you’re more likely to get favors from them. Relationships are huge and knowing who to contact for things helps to get things done.

5. What technology do you find the most useful in building your business?

Email. I don’t really use Facebook, and I will sometimes use Twitter for my Australian business. But email is my best way of correspondence. I don’t really do a lot of other marketing myself at this point, because I do enough business with my existing clients and referrals. I frequently contribute to the Andavo Travel blog, which is a great way to do reviews of all of the travel I enjoy, particularly if my clients ask me for info.

6. What personality traits do you think all successful travel advisors have in common?

I think travel advisors have to be pleasers – pleasers and listeners. You have to WANT to make sure you’re pleasing your client by giving them the best vacation they have ever had because it’s their money and their time.

7. If you had to go back, start over, and build your business again, what would you do differently?

Find the right host agency, and that’s Andavo, and then find the right consortia, and that’s Virtuoso – and luckily they go hand in hand. That’s one of the biggest assets you can have. You’ve got Virtuoso for the luxury travel and marketing materials, and you’ve got Andavo Travel for all the support you need.

If I was starting out again, I would go immediately to Virtuoso and start with their new travel advisor training. I think that’s essential. I didn’t know about anything like that at the time I started. And I really wouldn’t go anywhere else besides Andavo Travel for a host agency. That has been the greatest gift I’ve given myself. And I now have friends at Andavo that help when I have questions and vice versa. We all have problems, successes, and needs, and its great to have the personal support contacts to go to contact.

8. What do you do to close the sale?

“Which credit card would you like to use?” [laughs] I assume the closing, once we’ve gotten to a certain point. Very few people say they still want to think about it at that point.

If you’re working with a client and you’ve gone back and forth once or twice, creating the perfect itinerary, usually they’ll close it for you, to be honest. They’ll ask, “What do you need from me now?” “What’s the next step?”