At a time of year when business owners normally are focused on their strategic priorities for the first two quarters, conditions in 2021 remain so fluid that planning beyond even the next month can feel like sheer folly.
“I’m just trying to keep things going – just plugging away, crossing my fingers, taking it day by day and hoping for the best,” one travel advisor said.
Amid so much uncertainty, the very meaning of success shifts. “Success is survival. It’s maintaining our employees, maintaining relationships with our customers. It’s keeping the doors open,” said Jill Romano, co-owner of Dimensions in Travel in Novato, CA. “Success almost seems too strong a word.”
Still, travel advisors are pushing ahead on their game plans and priorities for the first two quarters of 2021, all while working feverishly to stay on top of ever-shifting travel restrictions and protocols.
Priority #1: Staying afloat, funding payroll
Generating sufficient cash flow to stay solvent and pay staff is the No.1 priority for many. That puts applying for a second Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan, for another Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) and for available state assistance at the top of many short-term to-do lists.
“Everyone’s cash pipeline is pretty much depleted. Now we have to build up the pipeline; you have to plan for how you’re going to get from here to there,” said Sandy Lipkowitz, founder of We Make Travel Easy in San Francisco.
Some agency owners are also reaching into their own pockets to pay the bills. Kristi Lewis of Travel by Pathfinders in Grosse Pointe Woods, MI, said she’s been drawing on personal savings to pay the salaries of her three employees, whom she credits for her success. “I had a really good 10 years. I’m just reinvesting it back, keeping things going.”
Staying connected & engaged
Advisors are also keenly focused on nurturing connections with their clients so that when those clients are ready to book their advisors are top of mind.
For Lipkowitz this means continuing a virtual travel and wine tasting series that she launched last May with a wine purveyor and a DMC. The event includes a half-hour destination-focused presentation, a shared wine tasting, and a period when mikes are opened up for conversation. “I started it as a way to keep engaged with clients and get new clients – people tell their friends,” she said.
The wine and travel series is in addition to continuing on with her usual client engagements – a regular newsletter, birthday and anniversary cards, reminders that passports will soon expire, topical emails, and the like, Lipkowitz said. “It’s really important that people feel that we’re solid, that we’re not going anywhere, that any future travel credits they have with us are totally safe.”
Keeping clients informed
Client outreach, including through individual phone calls and emails, is more important than ever right now, agreed Romano. To foster client engagement, her agency launched a series of twice-monthly “virtual journey events” in the fall. While the events have just begun to generate a few bookings, Romano said that was never the expectation.
“What’s the ROI? A lot of it is just continuing that connectivity with our clients, making sure we’re sharing information about what’s going on, what to expect, what travel is going to look like.”
At J5Travel, owner John Rees is concentrating on the tactical goal of growing the mailing list for his weekly e-zine, which features inspirational content. Already he has grown the list from 450 names last April to nearly 1,200 currently. He’s aiming for 2,000 by mid-year.
While the e-zine isn’t generating bookings, very few recipients have opted out. That makes Rees optimistic that “when everyone’s comfortable again” his e-zine will indeed spur sales.
Pressing ahead on bigger goals
Advisors are also moving ahead on longer-term strategic goals.
For Debra Harris, founder of Life’s Journey Travel in Myrtle Beach, SC, one goal in coming months is reaching out to local financial planners to propose working together to fulfill their clients’ travel dreams. She hopes that such partnerships will help her reach another strategic goal – building up her groups business.
At We Make Travel Easy, which caters to luxury clients, Lipkowitz is working on shifting her client base up to a higher tier of luxury traveler. “I want to have a strategic plan for reaching my ideal clients and implement that,” she said. To that end she’s begun soliciting proposals from marketing companies who might help her target that segment.
She believes the timing is right to upgrade her clientele. “There’s going to be a lot of looking toward wellness, meaningful travel, reconnecting with family and loved ones. Even with vaccinations, people will want to go to smaller properties with great safety protocols, and those tend to be higher-end properties.”
Lipkowitz also will resume work on strategic objectives she abandoned in 2020. Her plan before Covid hit was to accelerate business growth by bringing on more independent contractors in 2020. Now that goal is back in her sightlines, and in coming months she plans to put out feelers to attract more independents to her team.
She’s also looking to bring on a younger staff person who would eventually oversee day-to-day operations so Lipkowitz can focus more on external sales, growing her groups business and her own travels.
Leading the way on travel
Continuing to travel in coming months is a priority for Romano, who spent a week in Maui in January and plans to join a luxury glamping fam trip in February.
While respecting that the choice to travel right now is a very personal decision, based on one’s individual situation, comfort level, testing and other factors, Romano stressed that for travel sellers who feel safe doing so, “travel has to be a focus.”
“We as an industry need to get out there and travel and share with our customers what the experience is like as much as we can, while being safe about it.”