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Mary de Almeida & Pat Probert didn’t let the pandemic stand in the way of their plans for the future. From cruise bookings to luxury getaways with Uniworld, the pair successfully sold group bookings around the world while continuing to grow the Bob Family Travel team in the process. Now that travel restrictions have eased, the hard work is paying off.
Pat and Mary have become Uniworld’s #1 advisors in North America. They have developed a very strong partnership with Uniworld over the past few years, which has focused on developing large groups and multiple full-ship charters. Pat and Mary mentor other advisors and provide coaching to help them grow their river cruise business. They are passionate and driven, are consummate professionals and an absolute joy to work with.
Tell us a little about yourself and how long you’ve been in the industry?
MDA: Growing up I always looked forward to going to the airport to pick up family members or friends who were coming to visit from far away places. It fascinated me to see all the different people travelling and I liked to imagine all the places they would be visiting and the stories they could tell. I figured when I grew up, I would like a job at the airport, and I would like to be one of those travellers going off to one of those far away places. When I finished high school, I started studying business management, and after a year, I changed my focus to hotel management. Four years later I graduated from Ryerson with a Hospitality and Tourism management degree. Now I was ready to go and work in the industry and interact with travellers from all over the world.
PP: I have kind of been in the travel business one way or another since the late ‘70s when I used to go on ski groups to Quebec and Stowe VT. Then as the ’80s came along, I sold travel through a friend that had an agency by referring many of my friends. Many trips and business class flights were booked and those were the days when agencies were actually paid well for booking business class tickets. In 1982 I took my first Carnival Mardi Gras cruise in the Caribbean after being invited by a friend at work. I got the bug immediately on cruising and travelling. I did a lot of travel in my later years for my regular work job so the bug always stayed in me, and I would try and work a cruise in sometimes while on business travel. I travelled on a number of different cruise ships over the years and in the late ‘90s, I was averaging three to four cruises a year until the pandemic came along.
Why and how did you decide to become a travel advisor?
MDA: Within a week of graduation, a friend from school asked if I would go and work with her at CAA Travel (at the time know as OML). CAA was looking for someone to work in their hotel reservations department. I had already worked part time at a hotel on the front desk and switchboard, so this would give me the opportunity to experience the other side of the business. Within a few months I became a supervisor and within a year I was managing the head office travel branch that also served as the training centre for all the other branches. My one year ended up turning into 27 years of managing different travel store locations. In 2010 I had a decision to make — take a management position that involved driving around Ontario or look for something different in the industry. I decided that it was time for a change. After a year, I made the decision to join my partner Pat at TravelOnly. Pat by this time had been working on his own for a couple of years running his own home-based travel business – Bob Family Travel Team, under TravelOnly Inc. and he wanted to grow his business. I missed travel and wanted to be more involved in having direct contact with clients – this was an opportunity to do both and maybe do it more on a part time bases and spend more time travelling. What started off part time, quickly turned into a full-time job with many overtime hours. I have since been able to manage our business and sell at the same time and it’s turned into a successful venture. We quickly turned a following of friends into hundreds of loyal clients that travel around the world with us on an annual escorted group tour or two. In between our annual departures, we are busy booking all types of travel and have grown our business strictly by referrals. Our niche, other than groups, is selling cruises.
PP: I just loved to travel and enjoyed taking friends along with me. It was about the camaraderie with friends and getting time to spend with family and friends. After retiring I started getting bored but still liked to travel and I was going away with so many friends that at one time it topped over 175 on a Carnival cruise. We would go every November and we did this for 20 years prior to the pandemic. I used to give my friends my partner’s phone number for years and she would book them when she was the manager of CAA Travel. As the group continued to grow, I decided in 2009 to get back in the business full time and approached TravelOnly and made a deal right there on the spot with Gregory Luciani, President at TravelOnly Inc. I only wanted to take the couple of hundred friends away with me each year, however, it has now turned into a worldwide multi million-dollar business with clients from Australia, Mexico, Europe and all over the USA and Canada booking trips with us.
What’s your favourite part of being a travel agent?
MDA: Making people’s travel dreams come true. Seeing the world through the eyes of others and then getting to experience it firsthand when we go on our own group tours. We often travel in groups of 50-100. Being able to experience the magic of travel and being able to see the excitement and feel the thrill of a first-time cruiser or the gratitude of someone who just had their travel dream come true, makes all the hard work worthwhile.
PP: There is nothing better than hearing how happy clients are when you recommend a trip, or you take them away on an escorted tour. We have now taken clients around the world on so many trips, that when we offer a new trip, it always sells out fairly quickly. Hearing clients repeatedly tell you that ‘you have changed my travel life’ or ‘you have taken me to places that I only dreamed about’ is the best part of all. It might be just a simple thank you for arranging their travel, when they return – knowing that I’ve made a difference is very fulfilling. We have a fun group called “The Bob Family” and whatever one’s name is, it’s always Bob as in Pat Bob or Mary Bob. Working with suppliers to obtain the best offer for clients while making sure the supplier is still able to provide the best service for the quoted price is very important. Knowing that our clients are being well looked after is crucial as we want them to always feel confident that they are receiving the best proposal when they come to us. We never let our clients down and we constantly monitor all bookings for lower prices or better offers. We constantly add perks to client’s cruises or reduce their price before final payments are applied.
What got you through the pandemic?
MDA: I never had a chance to really dwell on what was going on as far as COVID itself – there was never any time. Whether it was cancellations and re-bookings and then more cancellations and more re-bookings, assisting clients with insurance claims or writing up cancellation reports, we have been very busy during the past two years. Although the money stopped coming in, there was a job that needed to be done and in times of crises, you just do what you have to do to get through it. We were always there for our clients and were constantly reassuring them that we would be there to help them throughout their insurance claim, while they were waiting for refunds or until they were satisfied with their future trip credits. Pat was busy negotiating future groups, and in between taking care of the cancellations, we were also selling into future groups. There was never any time to dwell on the pandemic and no down time to clean out closets or read a book.
PP: We have not slowed down through the pandemic although our income dropped substantially so we knew we had to reinvent ourselves and think outside the box. We negotiated with suppliers and ended up booking a few Uniworld sailings on their river boat cruises. We were able to sell out sailings in Vietnam/Cambodia and other locations. We have also blocked group space on a number of Celebrity cruises from Alaska, Baltics, Australia, Japan and other places for 2022 and 2023 as well as full ship charters for Egypt and the Nile with Uniworld on their new all suite ship, Sphinx for the fall of 2023. Thinking outside the box when the CDC advised all Americans not to travel on cruise ships and the Canadian Government increased the travel advisory back from level 2 to level 3 and kept the “Avoid All Cruises Advisory,” we knew clients would not be travelling right away so we did what we know best. We went to Regent, whose ship we had just sailed on, and looked at blocking space for 2024. Coupled with the location, Tahiti in February 2024, this proposal, would end up turning out to be the fastest and highest selling group in our history — with over $1.6 million in sales on one sailing.
We continue to work with suppliers and clients to book one, two and three years out and now we are starting to work on 2025 trips. This allows our clients time to plan and gives them an idea of where we are going. Any deal or proposed trip must work for all concerned, first and foremost, our loyal clients, then our suppliers, TravelOnly and lastly us. If everyone is not happy, it is not a good deal. Everyone needs to have a stake in the game.
What trends are you noticing from the bookings you have?
MDA: There really is pent up demand. We are finding that many of our clients just want to get away and we haven’t really had clients overly concerned about the cost of their trip. We have lost out on two years of travel and it’s time to make up for lost time. It’s time to take the money that was saved over the past two years and splurge on something special and that is what many people are doing. We have several back-to-back trips booked and demand for higher priced trips is on the rise.
PP: We have never seen stronger growth for luxury product, whether it is cruising, all inclusive vacations, bucket list trips or add on trips like in Alaska where clients are either doing longer land packages, renting motorhomes for multiple weeks before taking a cruise then maybe hopping on the Rocky Mountaineer before heading back home. Even luxury or more expensive travel in Canada has picked up, which is something we did not do much of prior to the pandemic. Clients are willing to spend more if they are getting value, there is no question about it. We have also seen several clients taking multiple trips this year. People are tired of being locked up and many have not been spending money going out to dinners, taking trips or shopping – so they have money available to do what they love to do, which is travel.
What’s your biggest piece of advice for travel advisors right now?
MDA: If you’re still there after two years of the pandemic, you have been a warrior in an industry that is reportedly the worse hit industry of the pandemic. Unfortunately, lots of knowledgeable travel advisors didn’t make it this far, which means that your service is going to be invaluable to an industry that needs you. The suppliers need you as they don’t have the staffing to be dealing with clients directly and your clients need you more than ever. Hopefully, you are already seeing an increase in sales and with time you will start to see a turnaround in your business if it hasn’t already started. Travel advisors have typically been a resilient lot who have always had to deal with every imaginable situation, whether it’s hurricanes, volcanoes, pandemics, wars, supplier failures and the list goes on, but one thing has always remained constant, nothing bad lasts forever and we as an industry need to believe and have faith that we will survive and that we are now here as a beacon to our clients.
PP: One of the things I often talk about when I am training or sharing ideas with travel advisors is stressing over and over for advisors to build their data base of clients, make notes about who referred the clients, important information about the client and keep these notes on the client’s profile. Knowing your client and their family and what types of vacations they like to experience is so important. Listen to what your client wants, not what you want and never sell from your pocketbook. Let the clients spend what they want — it is their money and they have worked hard for it and many want to treat themselves now more than ever. Always create the better experience in everything you do and never do anything based on how much money you might make on a sale, always do what is right for the client and your business will grow. Always ask clients for referrals and send thank you notes and include several business cards for them to use on referrals. Agents should consider certification in many different areas including ACTA and consider accreditation in Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA). Lastly experience the product you are trying to sell to your clients and do lots of live training when it starts becoming available again and online training from the many suppliers. Knowledge is key in selling travel. Always think outside the box for your clients.
Every agent should have a strong partner relationship as we do with all suppliers and like any relationship some are stronger than others but at the end of the day, we need all these suppliers, and this is a tight industry with many BDM’s, managers, account reps and others moving from supplier to supplier.
With such a strong tight knit industry during this pandemic it was so nice of the team at ACITA to work on behalf of all travel advisors. I highly recommend every independent travel advisor in the country be part of this amazing group started by Brenda Slater, Nancy Wilson and Judith Coates. ACITA continues to expand so advisors need to be part of this. These ladies have moved mountains in the industry and with governments all from the goodness of their hearts.
Can you share a special travel memory and what travel means to you?
MDA: I’ve been fortunate to have been able to travel to so many places on this beautiful planet that it’s hard to pick just one. Being an animal lover, any interaction with wildlife always creates special travel memories, whether it was having a large sea turtle swim up to me in Hawaii and experiencing a special connection, to snorkelling with all types of sea lions and sea turtles in the Galapagos or experiencing elephants playing in the water on an African Safari River boat, there have been too many to count. After years of escorting groups, we now make it part of our travel experience to try to help those in need at our destination. Whether it’s a whole family in need, a school, an animal rescue organization that may require supplies or victims of a natural disaster, we always try to help in whatever way we can. Our clients, many of whom have become like family over the years, are very giving and have helped with everything from filling up suitcases with school supplies and pet supplies to donating to help buy boats for fishermen survivors of a typhoon or water purification kits for survivors of a devastating hurricane. Travel is a way to connect with the world, to see the world through our eyes and the eyes of locals. When we can make a difference in the lives of others, while experiencing the gift of travel, then it’s a perfect and enviable combination.
PP: Travel is a benefit of life and travelling with friends, family and clients who become family is simply amazing and very rewarding. Our tour groups around the world have bonded so many people that have become lifetime friends and many look forward to their annual Bob Family Travel trips. Personally, two of my favourite trips were the Galapagos when we did a couple of ship charters with Celebrity and our African safari, that we booked with Exotik, a TravelBrands division. When we were on the Galapagos trip it was such an amazing experience in the first 48 hours, that we had Celebrity change our flights and hotel and book us on the next sailing as they had one cabin still available on the ship. As we had chartered the two back-to-back sailings and did not sell the last cabin it was still open, and we booked it and joined our second group to do a different loop. Walking around wildlife instead of you trying to find wildlife was a first for me. It was us the travellers that that had to move out of their way.
In 2019 our last group trip we had an amazing trip to Africa with a stop in Dubai for four days as part of the journey. We did it all with Exotik as they arranged everything from private jets to having our guides and manager fly with us throughout South Africa. We continued to Zambia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe where we ended our trip on the Zambezi River and Victoria Falls. This was certainly the trip of a lifetime for not only us but for all our clients who came with us on our dream adventure.
What’s still on your travel must do list?
MDA: We like to make people’s travel dreams come true and the best way to make this happen is to start planning them. We are planning and already working on several bucket list escorted groups that Pat has touched on and this will take several destinations off my list. A few that are still lingering there would be a trip to the Portuguese islands of the Azores as well as to the beautiful island of Mauritius. With so many incredible places to visit, I don’t think my list will ever be empty.
PP: Travel that should be on people’s must do lists should certainly include an African safari, Galapagos, Alaska, Australia/New Zealand cruise and land tour, which was a huge hit and somewhere we went twice. We have several bucket list trips coming up including cruising New England from Montreal to Newfoundland to Halifax and on to New York City will happen in May after our Uniworld cruise experiencing the highlights of Eastern Europe. We will follow that up with Vietnam and Cambodia in the fall of 2022 before we head to Japan in the spring of 2023 and the Nile and Egypt in the fall of 2023 before heading to Tahiti and Bora Bora on Regent in the winter of 2024. We still have Antarctica on our bucket list as well as Iceland and so many other countries but with travel opening up, we will be doing more of these trips and adding more places to our must do list.
Do you have anything to add?
MDA: I was bitten by the travel bug at a young age and still recall my first trip to the Cape Cod area, where I remember the excitement of seeing the ocean for the first time. There’s a special feeling when you experience a new destination, whether it’s a beautiful sunset over a field of flowers, a rainbow over a waterfall, snorkelling with stingrays, hand feeding fish or looking up at the Eiffel Tower or at Christ-the-Redeemer for the first time, it’s often a feeling akin to magic. Travel is the opportunity to broaden our horizons and widen our perspective, it gives us the opportunity to grow and to create memories that will last a lifetime, it gives us the chance to recharge our batteries. As travel advisors we are in a position where we can help others attain all of this and more. It’s no wonder that for many in this profession, once the travel bug bites, it’s difficult to walk away from it.
As St. Augustine once said, “The world is a book, and those who do not travel, read only a page.” I hope to keep reading as many pages as possible and to continue to help others do the same.
|Travel Agents, this May It's all about you!|
|Smaller corporate agencies and independents with corporate clients – listen up!|
|INCENTIVES | CONTESTS | WEBINARS | PODCASTS | EVENTS | JOBS|