Travel Advisor Roundtable: Stuck in the Middle

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Luxury Travel Advisor recently hosted a virtual roundtable to gauge where travel advisors were in July. The tone was somber; international borders remained closed to Americans and some U.S. states were imposing quarantine phases on those arriving from many other states. We discussed the outlook for the travel industry as well as how to handle service fees in the future. Joining us were Catherine Addé, TravelStore; Duncan Greenfield-Turk, Luxury London GuyAmy Grigos, High Access TravelAngela Hughes, Trips and Ships Luxury Travel; Robyn Knable Potter, Robyn Potter Travel and Alyssa Schaier, Courtyard Travel. Following is a condensed version of the discussion, which was moderated by Ruthanne Terrero, VP/Editorial Director of Luxury Travel Advisor.

Ruthanne Terrero: Welcome, everyone. We’re here in early July and travel has not come back as quickly as we thought it would. Please introduce yourselves and give us some background on your business. 

Alyssa Schaier, Courtyard Travel: I’m with Courtyard Travel in New York. We’re a part of the Tzell Travel Group and part of Signature. I joined the industry in 2014. I was in marketing and public relations for luxury goods.

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What’s been great for me is I’ve been able to parlay my marketing expertise into developing a lot of client acquisition and creating fun events in the marketplace to build relationships with companies that have the same target audience.

This was going to be one of my biggest banner years, but it is what it is. There are challenges, but there are just so many opportunities, too, if you just are willing to pivot.

Angela Hughes

Angela Hughes, Trips and Ships Luxury Travel: I have 35 years in the business with my family agency, Trips and Ships Luxury Travel. We also own a small nonprofit called Color my World, and we do humanitarian trips all summer long to destinations like Nepal and Guatemala and Machu Picchu and India. We do that all for free and we love it.

I also run the group of Luxury Travel University, because I’m also an educator. I have a Master’s and teach in the travel and tourism industry and consult on the side. I have about 1,200 agents in the Luxury Travel University group on Facebook where I’m trying to help people sell more luxury travel and I finally have more time to develop that.

Catherine Addé, TravelStore: This is my 43rd year in the industry. Last year, like you, Alyssa, I had super banner year and made Chairman’s Club after trying for eight years. My DBA is Catherine’s Travel Concierge with TravelStore, a Signature Travel Network agency, but I did spend 10 years with four major cruise lines as a BDM. I’m cruise-focused but, like many of you, a lot of my business is to Europe.

Alyssa, you brought up a great word for how to garner business, it’s the word “pivot,” and it’s really about pivoting towards other ways to market, other ways to keep in touch with clients. Classic Vacations recently had a fantastic discussion on public relations and the main takeaway was, “Don’t go dark on your clients right now. It’s not about selling them, but just getting on the phone to say, ‘Hi, how are you guys doing?’”

As far as luxury [is concerned], an interesting thing just happened. One of the private jet companies I use is Global Aviation in Hillsboro, Oregon. It was started by a flight attendant who opened her own business. She actually reached out to me and said, “My business has completely dried up. Do you have any clients that need jet travel right now?” I told her I’d call a few clients that do need it.

Amy Grigos, High Access Travel: I was with an agency for five years as an ultra-luxury advisor, and during the pandemic I actually started my own company, which has just been accepted into Virtuoso. I think everybody thought I lost my mind. Everybody’s running the other direction and I’m running into the fire. Europe is my biggest destination and 2020 was going to be amazing. But even now, I have to hold the clients back. They keep saying, “We want to go. We want to go,” and I’m like, “You have to wait.” I do have some bookings still on the books for August. They’re hoping they can go. I’ve been booking U.S. travel, which I really don’t normally book. Clients are worried about their December bookings. They’re like, “We just hope we can go in December for Festive.” The air is expensive. “If you want to go certain places that sell out,” I explained to them, “the prices aren’t going to come down.”     I’m just hoping that we get a handle on things and by Festive or even Thanksgiving people can really start going where they want to go.

Robyn Knable Potter, Robyn Potter Travel: I have been in the industry for 30 years. My agency is Robyn Potter Travel. It’s a Virtuoso agency. I was reading Facebook about an hour ago, and my assistant was on there writing about a discussion that she had with her mother, who is trying to talk her into leaving the industry. I wrote her back, “You are travel. You can’t just walk out of it just because times are bad. If you’re in travel, like all of us here, it’s in our blood. It’s in our hearts. It’s in our minds. It’s what we do. It’s what we love. It’s not a job. It’s our lives.”

I’ve been at the beach where many of my clients are. The first thing they say to me is, “I’m so sorry. How are you?” I’m like, “I’m great. I’m on calls seeing all my friends internationally, and if I’m not on a call, I’m on a Zoom, and if I’m not on a Zoom, I’m on a webinar, and if I’m not on a webinar, I’m talking to you guys.”

It’s going to come back. I can’t reiterate enough that I remember 9/11 and the whole world coming to a halt and people saying to me, “So what are you going to do?” I’m like, “What do you mean what am I going to do? I’m going to do what I’m doing. I’m just going to wait it out.”

We’re going to be needed more than ever when this is over, because I think the people that didn’t use travel advisors are going to realize, when the time is right, that we really are worth our weight in gold.

I was on a call yesterday, and one of the main topics was about charging fees, which I’ve never done in 30 years. Listening to all the other people on my call, [I concluded] that I am a professional, and I need to start charging fees. I was on a Zoom call with a doctor, and he wasn’t shy about sending me a bill. I think it’s really been a time for all of us to reinvent, reprocess everything and be able to realize our self-worth.

Duncan Greenfield-Turk

Duncan Greenfield-Turk, Luxury London Guy: I’m a little bit different to all of you. I’m 25 years in the industry with most of it in hotels. My agency’s probably the youngest, two-and-a-half years strong now in terms of what I’ve been doing. Obviously I’m U.K.-based but with clients sitting around the world.

It’s been an interesting period. To go from the luxury hotel sector to doing this side of the business ... Learning Sabre was a steep learning curve, but well worth doing just to be able to not have to hand my airfare over to someone else to do it.

I suppose, like Robyn, ideally I don’t want to go anywhere. I was around for 9/11. I was around for the 2007 crash here in London. And this side of the world is very different. Obviously 9/11 impacted us here but not as severely as the U.S.

Literally yesterday I had to tell a client that his flights to New York and his trip to Mexico in August had just been canceled. For us, it is a case of waiting and seeing. 

Everyone is like, “Oh, you need a pivot.” I’m like, “No. I need to focus on my business. I don’t have time to pivot if I want this business to survive.”

I talk to so many peers in the U.K. who [say] they’ve been busy but they’ve been doing their cancellations and rebookings but then literally [they] just go home and lay in the garden. My husband’s still working, hasn’t stopped. I get up the same time as him, which is like half 5:00 in the morning. By 8:30, I’m at my computer and I work until 8:00 or 9:00 at night. At the end of the day, I’m like, “Well, what did I actually achieve today?” Everything is about the marketing and the PR and who can I talk to, what idea can I come up with that’s going to further my reach?

I’ve got a very good friend who runs a private jet company here that a lot of the brokers will fly in. We jumped on a call. “What can we do to help each other? What do you need? What do I need?” So I said to him, “Look, I would love your commissions right now, because that would be great, but the reality is I probably need access to your customer base more than I need access to your commissions. So what if I gave you some deals and you send them to your direct bookers, not your brokers, because brokers will want a cut?” He’s like, “That’s not a bad idea.” My thought process is if they book the jet and book the hotel through me, he gets the jet, I get the hotels, but I potentially get a client.

Catherine Addé, TravelStore: I’m pivoting by booking California for somebody who bought their own boat and wanted a hotel at Bass Lake in the Sierras. That, to me, is a big pivot.

Duncan Greenfield-Turk, Luxury London Guy: I had someone that I’ve known for a couple of years ring me out of the blue and go, “I’ve got about $20,000 worth of masks that I need to shift. Why don’t you pivot and go and pitch these to the hotels?” I said,“Why would I do that?” That’s the kind of pivot I’m talking about.

Amy Grigos, High Access Travel: You should put your logo on the masks and give them to the people that are taking the private jet.

Duncan Greenfield-Turk, Luxury London Guy: The difficulty you’ve got there is if you start to do things that don’t align with what you are trying to achieve as a brand, you just devalue your brand.

Amy Grigos, High Access Travel: I agree. I actually looked at disposable seat covers, because I always send a gift [to clients]. So I thought, “Oh, this will be nice, I’ll send these disposable seat covers to the few people that are traveling now, and the company was like, ‘Okay. You need to buy 50,000.’” But, on a positive note, while we’ve been talking, I got an email from my corporate client. I know they said corporate’s going to take a very long time, but he is bringing up some of his people for a meeting. It’s going to be slow, but I see it coming back.

But it’s funny about the fees. I always charged a fee, right from the beginning; it sets a tone, and I think the client really does respect that. 

Amy Grigos

Duncan Greenfield-Turk, Luxury London Guy: Planning fees are far more common in the U.S. than in Europe. It’s a very newish thing here in Europe for advisors and agencies to charge them. 

I’m pretty open about it with clients. My first conversation is, “I have a planning agreement and I charge fees. Before I do anything for you, you sign the agreement to pay the fee.” Some clients are like, “Oh, what?” I’m like, “Let me explain it to you this way: the reason you pay me a fee is I work for you. I don’t work for the hotels.” So there’s transparency with the client.

Ruthanne Terrero: It’s so important to have that upfront, just as you say, because probably what happens with people is you have these fabulous conversations with them about these trips, and it’s almost like you established a real rapport and a friendship, and then it’s jarring at that point to say, “Oh, by the way, I charge a fee.” The sooner you can do it upfront so the relationship is understood, the better. You’re not doing this because you’re a nice person.
So many fall into that trap.

Catherine Addé, TravelStore: On the Signature website, there has been training on charging fees. I’ve always charged fees, but it’s been during this time period that I’ve been processing their plan-to-go deposit that is not refundable if the trip gets canceled for any reason. I’ve actually processed thousands of dollars in fees, and I’ve only had one person question it. 

Alyssa Schaier, Courtyard Travel: Fees are going to be vital. We have to do it. The other thing I’m considering doing is backend fees, cancellation fees.

Catherine Addé, TravelStore: That’s what I’m doing.

Alyssa Schaier, Courtyard Travel: If there’s something I learned more than anything through this whole thing is you spend so many hours planning a trip, but you know what? You spend just as many hours canceling it.

Duncan Greenfield-Turk, Luxury London Guy: There have always been advisors and agencies who do not want to charge fees.

Catherine Addé, TravelStore: TravelStore just re-did its website with our new fees for its employees. Independents can do what they want, but if you go to travelstore.com, down at the very bottom it says in fine print how we work, and they have just revamped all of the planning fees. It’s right there, transparent for any client.

Duncan Greenfield-Turk, Luxury London Guy: Mine’s transparent. It’s on my website.

Amy Grigos, High Access Travel: I’m building my website, so it’ll be on there.

Duncan Greenfield-Turk, Luxury London Guy: I’ve got a client, it was the first time she was working with me. She came to me in a panic, her daughter was in New Zealand and she asked me to get her home; the border was closing in a week. We did it. There were problems through one of the connections. They got rejected from the plane and all this stuff. I told her, “I’m charging a fee but it’s the first time you’re using me, so I’ll do this for a reduced fee, because I really would like to work with you long term.”

Initially I worked the whole weekend just to get her daughter on a plane on the Monday before the border closed on a Tuesday. The note I got from the client afterward was, “Duncan, I’m never going to book with anyone else. It doesn’t matter what your fees are.” She also said, she’s planning her 21st anniversary, and another trip to the Maldives next year and to send her the invoice. 

Robyn Knable Potter, Robyn Potter Travel: As someone who’s never charged fees, when people say, “What’s your fee?” I would always say, “That you refer me,” because I’ve always had an unlisted number, never advertised, never marketed, and built my business all by referrals. How do you take that client who’s been with you for 30 years and all of a sudden tell them you have to charge a fee, and, on top of it, you have to charge a fee if they cancel? In my head, I keep going over and over again how do I put that out there, how do I explain it? I do know I just went into my salon finally, and they are charging COVID fees.

Alyssa Schaier, Courtyard Travel: The whole climate of our industry has changed. This is the perfect time to do it, because clients understand what the industry has gone through. If they were your loyal clients and they booked with you, they know how hard you worked to cancel and make sure they still got their money back. My biggest clients never question it because they know our value, and the ones that don’t know the value, I’m like, “Well, maybe I shouldn’t be working with them.” I’d rather work with 25 great clients than 50 so-so clients. It just isn’t worth my time.

Alyssa Schaier

Catherine Addé, TravelStore: Or you can do the plan-to-go deposit format, which is what I’ve always used. This is my $100 per person, plan-to-go deposit applied toward your trip but it is not refundable if the trip is canceled. It’s like a cancellation fee. That’s not like Duncan’s advanced-fee planning. I do that as well. But for my long-term clients, I do the plan-to-go deposit, because it’s gentler, if you will.

Duncan Greenfield-Turk, Luxury London Guy: You can call it a planning fee but say, “Because you’ve been such a loyal client, when you confirm your trip, we will put it toward your travel. However, it’s nonrefundable should you choose not to go.”

Travel Has Changed, Again

Angela Hughes, Trips and Ships Luxury Travel: I think things have dramatically changed over the last month in travel because initially everybody was coming out thinking that we’re going to move right into domestic travel. But now there are so many regional differences, and then obviously with the states closing up borders to other states, it’s a huge issue. The industry just took a huge hit July 1 when they closed Europe [to Americans]. We never thought we’d still be here in July. I felt a huge shift. [The question is] are we going to even be able to sell what are we selling now?

Here’s the issue: Six or seven executives got on a call last week and talked about the river cruise lines. I sat and listened to that, and I was like, “This is great information. You’re giving us really great selling tips. But this really does nothing for me if I don’t have a border open, because, at this point, the confidence level of anything opening is slowly declining.”

Duncan Greenfield-Turk, Luxury London Guy: I’ve been relatively lucky. I’ve had five bookings in the last two weeks. I had a client go from Australia to Venice for three nights with the family. I had another client from northern Holland down to Amsterdam, and they’re looking at Germany later this month. The same client that went to Venice has just booked Paris for September.

Angela Hughes, Trips and Ships Luxury Travel: Domestically, people are having issues now just going to Georgia, South Carolina, or California, like we mentioned. I feel like we’re more gridlocked than we were even three months ago.

Robyn Knable Potter, Robyn Potter Travel: The flip side of that is with these lenient policies they are able to cancel within 24 hours or even up until 4:00 p.m. the day of arrival. I had somebody cancel a trip because they saw on TV that the weather wasn’t going to be good. Literally, they were going to Charleston and said, “It’s suppose to rain this week,” so they canceled on Friday.

With these lenient policies, even if you get to the point where you make bookings, it can all change within seconds, and that’s the most frustrating.

Duncan Greenfield-Turk, Luxury London Guy: There are two challenges in Europe at the moment, which are not really being broadcast as much as they probably should. [One] is that there are a lot of local lockdowns happening. For example, in the U.K., we had Leicestershire locked down. Spain had two regions locked down. Germany had a region locked down. So there’s a big push to get the economies going and keep it stabilized.

The other thing is that all these governments are talking about this massive push for travel, and, the low-cost airlines are relatively busy. 

I have a mentor, and she sits within the airline industry. She’s quite a senior, and we were chatting today. She was just saying that if you compare where we’re at now versus four weeks ago, the positive movement is there, but there’s also negative movement in the sense that we’re also going backwards in some places. Every country is trying to deal with this the best way that they can, and we’re just trying to survive it.

Catherine Addé

Angela Hughes, Trips and Ships Luxury Travel: I do want to add that we’re on a time scale that we never imagined even six weeks ago, where we thought that, maybe by fall, we’d be running again, and I really feel like this is going to be a longer than a year issue now. This is not going to resolve itself any time soon. I think we’re just in the beginning of an economic fallout in the tourism industry.

Alyssa Schaier, Courtyard Travel: There’s going to be a lot of consolidation, but I think it’s going to be survival of the fittest. Those suppliers and hotels that were really there for the travel advisors are going to still be around. If they’ve maintained a good relationship with us and were there for us, then we will be there for them.

This is a partnership business. I’m not going to name companies, but there were some companies that just disappeared, no matter how many emails you sent. You know what? I’m not going to be so eager to use them the next go around. I hate to sound negative.

Robyn Knable Potter, Robyn Potter Travel: There’s a naughty and nice list. I’m on an advisory board with Virtuoso, and I think that the list grows every time we’re on the call, which is once a week. There are so many suppliers who have not done right by us.

Angela Hughes, Ships and Trips Luxury Travel: And that’s actually caused us to shift to leaving third-party suppliers. We’ll be leaving some of the big ones. There’s going to be a switch in the way that we sell luxury travel. I no longer need a third party to negotiate my contract or book my airline ticket. In fact, I wouldn’t even go that direction anymore. That goes full circle with this whole issue of fees. I used to use third parties because it was convenient to bundle, but why did we do that?

Another problem is we can’t get the COVID tests turned around in time. This is the other part of the gridlock issue, depending on where you’re from, it’s hard to get a test back in 72 hours.

Robyn Knable-Potter

Alyssa Schaier, Courtyard Travel: My clients want to travel. They call me up depressed. They’re like, “When can we travel?” It’s just that we can’t get them there yet. 

I just wanted to say one thing. Everyone’s been comparing this to the Spanish Flu of 1918, but what happened right after the Spanish Flu? The Roaring Twenties. This
will get better.

Ruthanne Terrero: Exactly. There will be all that pent-up demand. Everybody’s going to go a little crazy with traveling when they can go again, but it will be a good crazy.

Robyn Knable Potter, Robyn Potter Travel: I’m looking forward to good crazy.

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