Written By: Summer Corbitt, Director of Sales & Marketing – UNIGLOBE Travel Center
Let’s start with a fact: 2020 has sucked. For those with ties to the travel industry, it has really sucked.
With that elephant in the room acknowledged, let’s move to a question: What can we do about it? We may not be able to bring travel back to pre-COVID levels as quickly as we want. We may not be able to rake in the commissions we once were. And, we may not have any control over the world economy right now. However, what we do have control over is how we respond to this obstacle. The Stoic philosopher, Epictetus, has some great advice for us.
“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own…” – Epictetus
Professionally, I am in the travel industry. More specifically, in sales and marketing. The main responsibility of my job is to help people discover if they should become a travel advisor and start their own agency. I think it probably goes without saying, but my job is not thriving at the moment. Not a lot of people are currently beating down my figurative door to become a travel advisor (stay tuned to find out why I think they should be).
Personally, I am an avid traveler. In fact, I recently spent a year traveling the world and living and working in over 20 different countries across 5 continents. Now, I work from home in a town of 5000 people and one grocery store. “Ah, cruel fate, how swiftly joy and sorrow alternate!”
I, like many travel enthusiasts and travel professionals, went through the stages of travel grief. Upon reaching the last stage, acceptance, I put on my big girl pants (as in, I actually started wearing pants again) and decided to make this year, my year. I made a commitment to focus on the things within my control and learn to accept the things I cannot control.
The result? Once a late sleeper with no real routine, I now get up at 5am, drink my morning tea, state my goals aloud, read my daily inspiration from The Daily Stoic (hence the Epictetus quote), and head to the gym by 6am. In addition to my 3 hours of weightlifting at the gym in the mornings, I practice Jiu Jitsu and Krav Maga 6-7 hours a week. I’ve completed every craft or home project I’d started and never finished, purged and organized every closet and cabinet in my house, then did it all over again. I’ve even started drinking a gallon of water a day! That’s no small feat for this (former?) water-hater.
Professionally, I’ve cleaned up my sales database, researched new technologies to help keep Uniglobe on the cutting edge, created new marketing plans, streamlined our application process, learned new sales and marketing skills, and recommitted to building up the Young Professional Society of ASTA (American Society of Travel Advisors).
Why am I telling you about my own journey through 2020? To show that I have put my money where my mouth is and used this very unprecedented year to push myself to be the most productive and healthy person I have ever been. I refused to stay in a funk because of factors that I had no control over. Instead, I took accountability for myself and created my own silver linings. But this article is about Uniglobe, not me, so let’s move on so I don’t get fired.
What is Uniglobe Travel Center Taking Control of in 2020?
Without warning, the industry has had to pivot, and pivot, and pivot again. At Uniglobe Travel Center (UTC), we had to make tough choices to keep the company lean for the long uncertain road ahead. We have seen travel advisors who have spent years in the business go under. Quite honestly, we saw our bottom line shrink to almost nothing. 2020 rocked us, but we refused to let it take us out. From those lows we were forced to examine the areas that we could influence, and it has spawned new ideas to reach and support our advisors.
The industry is facing a travel climate like nothing we have ever seen before, which means hosts and travel advisors are facing a slew of new issues. There is no magic answer, but we believe that if we can facilitate bringing our advisors together, we have the best chance at finding solutions as a community. UTC recently hosted a half-day symposium with our member advisors to tackle common challenges. Advisors and staff were broken into small groups and given a relevant problem to try and solve. The results were then shared with the larger group in an open discussion forum. The goal was to create a brain-trust that all advisors can benefit from. While we have always encouraged feedback from our advisors, this dedicated time to problem-solve together was so valuable that the symposium will now become a regular tool of communication with our advisors.
Learning From Each Other
One of the most helpful avenues we have found for advisors during this time is peer-to-peer learning. We didn’t want to just focus our support on supplier trainings and technology education. Rather, we have found a way to give our members the chance to learn from other advisors or share their own ideas and methods. This could be something they have found that works well for them during this time or something they are already an expert in. Our advisors love it! We consistently get the best feedback from these sessions and have committed to doing more peer-to-peer education.
To assist our advisors in finding fresh avenues to book travel for their eager clients, Uniglobe has worked to expand our domestic preferred supplier relationships. We have added options such as RV rental companies that pay commission and encouraged our advisors to become familiar with National Parks, dude ranches, road trip destinations, and the like. Of course, domestic travel has always been around, but it’s sometimes pushed aside by more “exotic” destinations abroad. A great upside of 2020 has been the renewed interest in our own backyards and appreciating what a beautiful country we live in with a huge array of travel destinations to explore.
Embracing New Revenue Streams
In addition to helping to create new booking opportunities, we have placed an emphasis on service fees. We want our advisors to understand how to charge appropriate service fees, and more importantly, how to have that conversation with their clients. A travel advisor’s role is more valuable than ever because of the ever-changing regulatory landscape in travel, and we believe their compensation should reflect that. Service fees aid in providing immediate cash flow for the advisors, something that the travel community desperately needs right now. Service fees have always been a big debate. Some do it, some don’t, and many want to charge them but have always felt unsure or uncomfortable with it. The situation this year has encouraged many travel advisors to push beyond their comfort zone, become more confident in their worth, and help to safeguard their own livelihood beyond just a supplier commission.
Having A Little Fun
We deeply understand that everyone is stressed right now. While it is important to keep our members updated on supplier policies, or brainstorm about marketing, it is also important to give them some time to relax and enjoy each other. It’s probably more vital now than it ever has been to practice self-care. By hosting virtual happy hours and events, our advisors get a chance to have a safe place to communicate with those who are going through the same things. Sometimes that means we only talk about the positives, and other days it’s a time to vent and encourage each other. It’s especially meaningful to have UTC staff participating and ensuring that all advisors feel personally connected and heard. UTC has always been a big happy family. In hard times, some families crack, while others come closer together. 2020 has definitely brought this family of staff, suppliers, and advisors closer together and we will be stronger for it on the other side.
Our current job as a host agency is to keep our existing agencies on their feet and aid in putting new agencies in the market to handle the nation’s return to travel. It is our responsibility to help struggling and discouraged advisor to see the silver linings. To hold on to hope and to move forward to a brighter future.
So, What Can You Do to Create Your Own Silver Linings Playbook?
It’s widely believed that as soon as travel is permitted on a large scale there will be a boom, and that boom will also bring with it a renewed interest in travel advisors to provide even more expert advice. With likely more restrictions than before, travelers will look to trained advisors to ensure they are able to travel safely.
Because of this, we are still bringing on new-to-the-industry advisors. I know I said earlier that people aren’t knocking down my door to get started, however, there are some forward-thinkers who realize that now is the time to make a small investment, learn the business, set up their agencies, and be ready for the inevitable boom in travel that will occur when restrictions start to be significantly lifted. When first starting out, advisors can often get overwhelmed by all that goes into setting up a travel agency and learning how to book and manage travel, while also starting to take on clients. With less clients able to travel right now, part of that equation has been lessened. Now is the time to use the slow-down in travel to develop your brand identity, make a plan for your marketing, take supplier and destination trainings, build a blueprint for your planning routine, draft templates and checklists to make yourself more effective and efficient, connect with others in the industry, join ASTA and get involved in advocacy and networking. Prepare, prepare, prepare! The last thing you want to do is wait for the boom and then play catch-up trying to learn while in the midst of a run on travel. It isn’t easy under normal circumstances, so don’t stack the odds against yourself. Get started now and build foundations that can stand up to this storm and any more to come.
At Uniglobe we have found that newer advisors are actually making more new bookings during this pandemic than existing advisors. In short, because they have little to lose, they just go for it! Existing advisors have had to deal with cancellations and seeing their business significantly drop. Psychologically, that takes a toll and squashes motivation.
For existing travel advisors, the first step is to overcome the mental and emotional beating you just took. You were forced to watch hard earned business slip away. You lost thousands, maybe tens of thousands, in commissions. You spent hours on the phone trying to cancel trips and navigate ever-changing COVID policies. I know how defeating that was. But as Epictetus says, those are externals not under your control, so let’s instead turn to choices that are your own.
One strategy: think like a newbie. You just read that we are seeing a lot of bookings from brand new advisors because they are starting from the bottom, so they only have one direction they can go: up! Make an effort to accept what you may have lost and look forward to what you can gain. Start with one client, one booking at a time. It may not be a $30,000 Antarctic cruise, maybe it’s only a 3-night stay at a national park, but remember, you’re “new”, any booking is a path forward.
What else can you do while you have limited bookings? Brush up on your favorite supplier and destination trainings. Learn about some new ones. Build spreadsheets to update the ever-changing policies. Get your finances in order. Audit your templates and checklists. Make actionable goals for 2021. Learn new computer skills. Take free online classes, like accounting to better manage your cash flow moving forward or new ways to market. Reach out to your clients and find out what would make them comfortable to travel. Do those things you always said you never had time for because you were too busy booking travel. This storm may have hit you hard, but cursing the storm that has already done it’s damage isn’t a solution. Rebuilding your foundation is within your control.
Where Do We Go from Here?
What is going to happen with the travel industry? It’s the question everyone wants to know. From the top CEOs to the aspiring travel entrepreneurs. The simple answer is, we just don’t know. The silver lining here is that while travel is often one of the first industries hit in economic downturns, it is also always one of the first to bounce back and regain steam. Even if that bounce back may look a little different than the world we knew before.
A key silver lining I think we can all agree on is a commitment to higher cleaning standards from travelers and operators alike. As someone who once spilled an entire bowl of vegetable beef soup into a seatback pocket and saw it seep into every crevice, I am all for more extensive cleaning of planes, trains, and automobiles, even if means more time waiting around. I would also like to take this time to formally apologize to that Delta flight crew. I have learned from my mistake and have never tried to eat soup on a plane again!
Because I can’t end this article on a story about soup… and because I do sincerely hope to encourage you, I will leave you with a quote from Irish Author and Nobel Prize winner, Samuel Beckett.
“Let us do something, while we have the chance! …Let us make the most of it, before it is too late! Let us represent worthily for on the foul brood to which a cruel fate consigned us!”