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Expert Advice: How to Get Through This Time

Ruthanne Terrero, VP and editorial director of Travel Agent magazine moderated a panel during the ASTA Global Live virtual conference in August with a list of top advisors who provided timely and sage advice for travel advisors.

The lineup included Claire Bidlingmaier, The Affluent Traveler Collection; Mo Noubani, The Travel Box International; Helen Prochilo, Promal Vacations and Matt Wahlgren, Matt Travel.

Ruthanne Terrero: Welcome, everyone. Let’s introduce ourselves.

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Mo Noubani, The Travel Box International: We’re a leisure and luxury-based company; our main office is in Orlando, Florida. And we specialize in once-in-a-lifetime experiences for the discerning traveler, we’re also a Virtuoso member agency. We market in a few different languages. Our clientele is 70 percent in the U.S. and 30 percent abroad.

Claire Bidlingmaier, The Affluent Traveler Collection: I’ve been in this industry I can’t even say how long; I love that we’re doing a lot of these panels and have so many of our colleagues in attendance.

Helen Prochilo, Promal Vacations: I’ve been in business 18 years, starting in a brick-and-mortar agency, and then moving to home based in 2004. I’ve been an ASTA member for 10 years and the former Local Chapter President of the Long Island ASTA Small Business Network and I’m a Small Business Network Director on the ASTA Board of Directors.

Matt Wahlgren, Matt Travel: I specialize in European itineraries, whether that’s a custom itinerary, or just finding the right river cruise or ocean cruise for my clients. I’m the Second Vice President of the Northern Cal ASTA Chapter

Claire Bidlingmaier, The Affluent Traveler Collection

Ruthanne Terrero: This panel is meant to be about selling travel in a post-pandemic world. How have you pivoted during this crisis and have you had a pivot more than once?

Mo Noubani, The Travel Box International: Absolutely. It’s an ongoing process. The first thing was really pivoting mentally and psychologically. In the month of April, I almost went into hiding and I’m not ashamed of it. Everybody has to go through a different process. Being that our focus was more on the experiential celebratory side of travel we wanted to stay true to our aesthetic. So being that we couldn’t really hone in on international travel, we started approaching domestic travel that still had that experiential wow with it. So, we’ve stayed consistent with our clients and we’ve stayed consistent with our messaging. We’re still pivoting and every day is a new day.

Some things work, some things don’t, but I think everybody would agree, nobody can stay stagnant in today’s market.

Matt Wahlgren, Matt Travel: I don’t know how many times I’ve had to pivot or think about pivoting this year. I’ve moved into focusing on inspiring my clients and encouraging them to dream. Even if they’re in places where they need to shelter in place, you can still dream, and we can dream together. I’ve been sending them inspirational messages and keeping in contact with them.

I’ve also reminded them about doing road trips, I love road trips. That’s what first got me into travel, doing road trips around the United States. I tell them if they need help with that and advice, I’m happy to put those together for them, too. That’s one major pivot that I have done because I don’t really sell trips within the continental U.S. The other pivots are yet to come because there are going to be more pivots later on this year and next year.

Claire Bidlingmaier, The Affluent Traveler Collection: As travel professionals we’re used to pivoting. Every time there is an airline strike. Every time there’s a hurricane. Every time there’s a pandemic. Every time there’s an economic downturn, we pivot as travel professionals. So, thank heaven we have the experience and the background to understand how to pivot in this situation, although this situation is very different. What I’ve found is the one constant, every single time we’ve had to pivot is to really know my client. I tell everybody, know your client personally. Don’t just know them on the surface, know them intimately, what their likes are, what their dislikes are, their daily habits.

If you can understand your clients that way, you can then work through a pandemic, you can work through any situation for that particular client; and every client’s different. It’s funny, the things you find out on a text from a client. I got a text from a client on a Saturday; he was having a bottle of wine with his wife, they were watching a movie and they were just getting ready to sit down and thought they’d call me to thank me for the bottle of wine. 

So, I wrote down four things: They like wine, they’re home on Saturday night, they like movies, he’s with his wife, which means the kids are somewhere else. When you write down those tidbits of information and really get to know your clients you’d be amazed what you can offer to them and the way that you can service them just by knowing them intimately.

Ruthanne Terrero: That sounds so simple, but it makes a lot of sense. And you’ve got all that intelligence at your fingertips. Helen, have you changed up how you’re doing things within the past few months?

Helen Prochilo, Promal Vacations: Oh, absolutely. Our first pivot was to stop booking immediately and we went to work on making our clients whole, trying to get their money back, refunds, deposits. Most of our bookings were for international travel. Once that ended, I had to change the way I do things and look more into booking the United States. And then we pivoted again because we were sending people to the Caribbean and as the requirements kept changing, we’ve started recommending that they wait until next year. We’re too worried about these last minute COVID tests that they have to have. And most of my clients are in New York and they would have to quarantine when they came back for two weeks.

Helen Prochilo, Promal Vacations

Ruthanne Terrero: What else are you doing to stay in touch with clients?

Claire Bidlingmaier, The Affluent Traveler Collection: Every client is different. We don’t put clients in a box and treat everybody the same. So again, if you know your clients, you’ll really understand the best way to speak with them, such as “Here’s a bottle of wine, enjoy it.” Some clients want a lot of information, so I make sure that I send them something every single day. Some don’t want that much, they want me to just tell them what’s important for them to know when they’re ready to go, but I’d say, “Be creative.”  We don’t just have to send texts and emails and phone calls, be creative with the way that you communicate with your clients. They’ll appreciate it. They’ll understand that you’re thinking about them as an individual and then handling them in the way that they want to be handled. So, that’s what I say, “Treat everybody as an individual.”

Ruthanne Terrero: Definitely the human factor comes into play here.

Mo Noubani, The Travel Box International: Claire, I’m right with you 100 percent on that. Our agency was a bit cautious because we didn’t want to overdo it with the client by constantly being there. So, we started a live chat feature, that we did not have before. We have our advisors on at different times and we let clients know that we’re there on their time. They’ll see a window on our website and if they just want to ask a quick question, it’s a nice addition to our marketing that we have found to be very helpful. And the advisors actually have a great lead into a sale from there. 

Ruthanne Terrero: That actually breaks down that barrier of, “Oh, I don’t want to call them. I don’t want to email them.” They can just text you and ask you a small question.

Mo Noubani, The Travel Box International: Absolutely. All we want is to open that relationship, to open the communication.

Matt Wahlgren, Matt Travel: I’ve definitely been communicating more with my clients during this time. I’ve been sending more e-blasts and writing some blogs. Of course, I’ve upped my social media game, but to Claire’s point on the personal touches, I’ve been reaching out through phone calls or Zoom calls, not to sell or anything, but just to check in and see how they’re doing, because I do consider my clients my friends. We’re reminiscing about other trips, and just having a personal conversation, planting the seeds. 

Helen Prochilo, Promal Vacations: We’ve been posting on our Facebook and Instagram pages updates on the different country requirements. Every time there’s something that changes we’ve been posting it. We’re also noticing a lot more people checking those emails that we’re sending out. We’ve also reached out to some of our suppliers about doing webinars that we can invite clients to. We’ve done two of those and the engagement is growing. We’ve found that suppliers are more than willing to help us reach out to our clients. 

Ruthanne Terrero: It sounds as if one takeaway from this would be, don’t be shy about approaching your clients during this time but do it carefully, make sure that the way you’re communicating with each client is customized to what you know about them and that every time that you do communicate with them, you should learn more about them and write it down so that you know their likes and dislikes. 

So, where are you having success sending clients now? 

Helen Prochilo, Promal Vacations: We’re finding Jamaica and Mexico because that’s pretty much all that’ll take us besides the United States. And people are ready to go.

Ruthanne Terrero: Claire, during our first conversation, you said that some of your clients are very willing to travel now and even the quarantine aspect of travel isn’t slowing them down. Can you expand on that?

Claire Bidlingmaier, The Affluent Traveler Collection: Since most of us are working from home these days, some clients feel that they can just pick up their offices and move to a different location. It gives them a different perspective, it helps stimulate their creativity, and it gets their family out of that funk about just going into the backyard every day. We’ve had a number of those requests. 

You can actually go to Hawaii. There are very strict regulations to getting into the destination, but as professionals, it just requires us to do a lot of research, a lot of phone calls, a lot of searching to make sure that when you make that recommendation to somebody, you can actually fulfill it. And I tell everybody, “Please let your clients know, this could change tomorrow, but here’s the information that I’m giving you today because our situation is so fluid.” 

I tell them not to assume that a client won’t do it. When I’ve spoken to my colleagues I’ve found they automatically assume that the client wouldn’t travel. Don’t assume that. Wait for them to tell you that they can’t. 

Matt Wahlgren, Matt Travel: I’m going to do an extended stay in Mexico starting next week. I signed a lease for a casita for four months in Puerto Vallarta. If I can work from anywhere, I might as well get away. Maybe that will inspire my clients. I’ll be able to speak to what’s it like in Puerto Vallarta and that might make them a little more confident.

Mo Noubani, The Travel Box International: One thing we’re seeing promise in is Dubai, which is a big market for us. So, for example, Emirates Airlines announced that they are giving full insurance coverage for anybody that flies with them, at no extra charge. When you buy the ticket, it comes automatically. We put that into one of our email newsletters and we targeted the people who would appreciate that. And literally a couple of calls came in.

I’m sure we’d all agree that what we’re seeing today might be a completely different story next week. I mean, it’s just crazy. That’s part of the challenge, to stay fluid and stay very versatile and flexible while you are dealing with those clients, because there’s really no right or wrong. And you have to respect everybody’s stance.

Mo Noubani, The Travel Box International 

Ruthanne Terrero: Any tips for the travel advisor who wakes up in the morning and is simply overwhelmed?

Claire Bidlingmaier, The Affluent Traveler Collection: Every single morning, I used [to pick up my phone]. I looked at it every minute of every day. I don’t do that anymore. I actually sit and try and absorb whatever the new news is. I try and do that because I know my clients are depending on me to do that. And if you know your clients and you hear the news, you know which ones you need to contact immediately to say, “Don’t worry about this.” And I know the ones that are sitting at home going, “Oh I’m not worried. Claire’s got this.” 

Then, throughout the day, you get to the others that are affected by the news. It’s easier said than done because of course, you’re now starting to receive messages as well. But if you stick to what your plan is, you can then start your plan of attack on how you’re going to contact your clients and your colleagues and what else you need to do throughout the day.

Helen Prochilo, Promal Vacations: Being part of ASTA chapters, we reach out all the time to fellow advisors to communicate all the different news and things that are coming up. So, use your network. Network with other advisors and they can help you if you get stuck on something. They are I think the best people that we have. A big plus of being an ASTA member is you have somebody you can reach out to.

Mo Noubani, The Travel Box International: It’s also important to have long-term and short-term process. So, for example, for us the live chat is short term because it’s happening right now. Introducing our destination specialists is more of a long term, that’s for when the international markets start opening up. That also gives us that hope for tomorrow, but still we are also focused on this instant and today. I cannot stress the psychology of all of this.

Ruthanne Terrero: What can advisors be doing behind the scenes right now if they have the gift of time?

Claire Bidlingmaier, The Affluent Traveler Collection: Learn, learn, learn, and learn some more. We have to know so much more today than we knew in the past. Learn. Find ways of absorbing information, accessing information, do your webinars, come on these calls, they’re so critically important. And as Helen said, we have to be in this together. We have to use our colleagues to learn, to help each other. That’s so important right now.

Mo Noubani, The Travel Box International: Reach out to suppliers. People are really open these days to thinking even more outside of the box and collaborating. And people are with you, so they share your pain and your joy. I couldn’t agree more on helping to stay connected. 

We also have updated our terms and conditions and are making sure we are covering ourselves a bit better with disclosures to the clients, especially with a COVID waiver. We are advising our clients, that we know that COVID is going on and that they’re accepting risks for themselves by traveling with us.

Matt Wahlgren, Matt Travel

Matt Wahlgren, Matt Travel: I would say to those newbies, you actually came in at a good time. You’re going to learn a lot during this time. You’re going to learn all the things that could go wrong. I was coasting for six years, everything was smooth. Now I’m seeing all the things that could go wrong and I’m really learning. 

As for those terms and conditions, take a fine-tooth comb and go over those with your clients, that if they’re booking travel, this is what things are going to be like now. It’s about setting those expectations.

Another thing that I’ve been doing is reaching out to other local small businesses that are complementary to mine or our interests. I like food. I like wine. I’ve been reaching out to local, small wineries and smaller restaurants just to say, “Hey, is there something I can do to help you? Can I be a voice for you? I can reach out to my audience. Do you want to do a guest blog post?” It’s about building that relationship and helping each other out. Who knows, maybe in a couple years down the road, we may do a group river cruise or culinary trek together. So right now, it’s about being of service to others and maybe that will bear fruit.

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