Interviewing: Bill Coyle, Director of Education and Programs – KHM Travel Group
An Interview By: Andy Ogg, CTIE, Co-Owner – Travel Professional NEWS
First off, thank you very much for the time today and for joining our fantastic Travel Professional NEWS readers!
Thank you, Andy! I’m always grateful to discuss travel agent education — especially right now because so much is changing.
Can you briefly introduce KHM Travel Group and what you do?
KHM Travel Group was founded in 2005 as a small, family-run business just south of Cleveland, Ohio. Our President and CEO, Rick Zimmerman, has been leading the way since the beginning. Through our dedication to travel agent education and support, we’ve become one of the country’s leading host travel agencies. We now host more than 4,500 travel agents and have a team of more than 80 people to support them.
Especially this year, we’ve worked very hard to maintain that family feeling among our team and with our agents.
I joined the KHM Travel Group staff in January of 2016, after 20 years of running my family’s retail travel agency.
How has KHM Travel Group continued to educate travel advisors throughout the COVID-19 crisis?
It started back in March when we decided to do Facebook Lives in our Agent-Only Group three times a week. These were very focused on keeping the most relevant, up-to-date information in front of agents. We are still doing them twice a week and we often have suppliers or leading travel industry voices join us to share their insights.
From there, we determined we needed to add something more permanent to our education programs. Our Education team developed weekly Agent-to-Agent webinars featuring different members of our team, our agents, and even travel clients, on one occasion! We started out focusing on a different aspect of the survival phase. Digging into what agents were really going through on a day-to-day basis helped us stay in tune with their reality and how we can best serve them. Recently we’ve been able to step towards revival and what agents need as travel begins to recover.
The past few months our new online learning series, Virtual EDU has been our biggest undertaking across all of our teams.
What does Virtual EDU entail?
Virtual EDU is a series of online learning courses we launched in July. Each course is composed of 7-10 recorded video presentations that are no more than 20 or 25 minutes in length. We relied on the expertise from our different teams and when appropriate, of our supplier partners.
Our first course was released on July 14, which was just as we are doing this interview! After that, a new set of sessions is going to be released every Tuesday for six weeks. After that, we’ll have a two-week break and then return with six more sessions. In addition to this, we are hosting live weekly happy hours in Zoom on the following Mondays after courses are released, to review and discuss what agents learned.
How did you go about developing the format and content for Virtual EDU?
We knew from agent feedback and from looking at other virtual learning platforms that people learn differently online. It would’ve been one thing to take the same structure we use for our live events and turn it into webinars, but online you need to have shorter, more condensed sessions.
Our team devised an outline that’s been revised over and over again until we settled on a flow that made sense. Agents can go through at their convenience, and in whatever order they please. However, the topics of each week and the individual presentations within each week are in a very particular order; we start with the fundamentals in the first six weeks. This includes sessions on the process of making a booking and doing a business reality check.
After the two-week break, we come back with a week on groups and then follow up with more advanced business strategies and suppliers. It is progressive if you want it to be, but it’s also flexible if you want it to be.
In your opinion, what are the advantages of virtual learning versus in-person for agents?
Obviously, everyone’s schedules are crazy right now. Some have more free time and others may be busy having their kids at home or working additional jobs. Agents being able to learn when they have the time and focus is always beneficial, but especially now.
It’s also a cost savings for them if they’d normally have to travel for a live event. Health and safety concerns tie into that, Virtual EDU is something they can work on without leaving their homes.
One other advantage of how we set up Virtual EDU, is that it’s one part of a larger whole. It’s exclusive to us so our Core Values and processes are all a part of it. It reinforces and expands on things we’ve already been doing in our Learning Management System, on Facebook, during webinars, and at live events. We are really big on setting standards and reinforcing expectations with our agents, for our host agency, and for the industry.
What sets the Virtual EDU series apart from other online education available in the travel industry?
Our team designed, developed, and recorded the entire series. We bring in suppliers when it is appropriate, such as when we cover the booking process and marketing specific types of travel. Every aspect of what we do is covered, from commissions and compliance to support and suppliers.
The knowledge of the industry veterans on our team is at our agents’ fingertips. It’s so important for us to be able to take what works for us and put it in front of agents. We can literally show them real-life examples of our processes.
I think the fact that there’s a learning component and an engagement/networking component with the Zoom Happy Hours is unique too. The ability to make connections is what our agents say they value most about our live events, so we found a way to incorporate this into Virtual EDU too.
Are there other avenues you’ve pursued in order to keep agents engaged and connected with your host agency, and each other?
Our seven Regional Coordinators have done an amazing job organizing Virtual Team-Ups in their areas. These are more focused conversations that, for the time being, have replaced the in-person Team-Ups that became so popular with our agents last year.
There’s also so much available to us in Facebook and Zoom, which we’ve always used but have expanded on in recent months. We even have a text message program to encourage engagement with us for specific programs, like Virtual EDU.
For those new to travel, what aspects of education should they be focusing on right now?
This really goes for all agents, but first is understanding the needs and mindset of the consumer. During the qualifying process, agents now need to ask: was this person impacted or not impacted by COVID-19? Your conversation with them is going to change depending on whether they had travel plans this year or not.
New agents have a perfect opportunity to differentiate themselves right now, especially with those travelers who were impacted by COVID-19 and haven’t worked with an advisor before. Putting your best forward as an advisor means staying up to date on what’s happening and clearly communicating that to clients.
For veteran agents, what advice do you have for them to survive the travel slow-down and stay relevant as we move into revival?
The veteran agent has to re-tool the way they’ve been doing business. First, there’s a lot of new terminology and policies that we need to understand. Prior to COVID, travelers didn’t ask which specific elements were refundable or what were the specific cancellation policies. Consumers will be smarter because of their experiences this year; their advisor also needs to be smarter.
They also are going to delve deep into the qualifying process. They can’t rely on what they’ve done for their clients for years, because their options and comfort level may have changed. I am a big believer that experienced agents should be learning the intricacies of the luxury travel segment right now. The mass market will be hurting over the next year, but if we can help them move up into that next level of clientele, they can hopefully continue to develop themselves as a specialized agent. I’m really looking forward to the second half of Virtual EDU for this reason!
As we look forward, what do you think we, as an industry, can do to help the world of travel begin its rebuilding process?
I think helping our agents learn how to adapt is key. We are working in the field and booking every day so we can adjust our messaging and education for agents. Helping them help themselves in difficult situations is going to allow them to move beyond survival to revival quicker.
Everyone benefits from a positive attitude. If travel advisors can move forward positively, that will set an example for all travelers. There’s a substantial amount that’s still unknown but KHM Travel Group is 100% committed to bringing our agents what they need to thrive in this new era for travel.
Is there anything else new on the horizon for KHM Travel Group?
Virtual EDU is at the top of our minds right now, but we’ve also got a pulse on our future live events and what those will look like. Those aren’t going away completely.
We also want to use this first round of Virtual EDU as a learning experience and find out from agent feedback how we can improve on it for next year. I can imagine that the industry will look even more different then, and we want to accommodate for that. We want to take the feedback we get from our first round of Virtual EDU and continue to improve on it for next year.