Pat Probert and Mary De Almeida of The Bob Family Travel team at TravelOnly reveal how they produced $1.2 million in bookings for a single trip, strategies for thinking outside the box to increase business, how they are gearing up for travel post COVID-19 and much more.
Coming off the greatest year in history for Bob Family Travel at TravelOnly, when 2020 arrived, Pat Probert and Mary De Almeida thought they might see clearly — no pun intended — where their travel business was headed.
“It was as if we were on a speeding bullet train, similar to the one we took several of our groups on in China, however, it seems that train hit a wall and bounced back faster than it was going forward,” Probert and De Almeida told Travel Courier. “While we were shaken into reality, we realized a major force would change our travel business and the world moving forward forever, and we needed a total reset.”
After the shock of travel advisories set in, the Bob Family Travel team, which has been with host agency TravelOnly for 10 years, sat down to regroup.
“When the government called on all Canadians to come home, we wanted to ensure that we could arrange for the safe return of all of our clients by one partner always being available,” they said. “Clients could call or email 24 hours a day and receive a response as our team has clients from all over the world — Australia, Mexico, USA, Canada and other places — who travel with, or book with us regardless of where they live.”
Next came the challenge of cancelling and moving bookings, month by month.
“Timing was crucial then as it is today, as protecting our clients’ investments with the least amount of penalties was one of our top priorities,” they continued. “This often involved waiting it out, while making sure we were not going past any deadlines where clients would incur additional penalties. If a cruise line cancelled the booking, the clients received between 25-50% bonus future cruise credit instead of the client paying the penalty if they cancelled past the final payment on an active sailing. If airlines cancelled flights, clients received a full future credit instead of paying penalties, just like the tour operators, because if the supplier cancelled it was to the clients’ advantage.”
Throughout the process, clients remained their top priority.
Thinking outside the box
As one of the top producers for TravelOnly, a lot of hard work is involved behind the scenes.
“It is not a 9 to 5 job — it is hands-on, all the time, and being available to your clients is important,” they explain. “When top producers are on vacation, they never have an out-of-office email saying they are away a week or two as they log in every day and often several times a day.”
As for some of the secrets to their success, they said thinking outside the box when it comes to planning trips is key to give clients a better experience.
“We take clients where they would never think of going on their own. Agents need to know what is on the bucket list of clients. The clients already know where they want to go — they just need someone to take them there.”
For example, last year, the Bob Family Travel team took a tour to South Africa. It was so successful that they sold out four times until they had to stop taking bookings, even as clients continued to want to join the group.
Planning the trip alongside the Exotik team at TravelBrands led them to come up with a trip of a lifetime. The process even included a trip to Montreal to hammer out the details, including getting a great rate with Emirates.
“All levels of service on Emirates were amazing, but having a shower or two in first class certainly was different,” Probert recalled. “Flying Emirates was an added bonus, allowing our clients to stop over in the UAE for a few days. The group did it all from driving through sand dunes, riding camels, and having dinner in the desert, to visiting all the tourist hot spots. Then it was back on Emirates to whisk us to Johannesburg for a few days of touring before heading to Kruger National Park to start one of the 14 safari/game drives. We then ended the South Africa part of the trip in beautiful Cape Town before flying to Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Zambia where TravelBrands arranged for local flights with South African Airways. The Exotik team even made the arrangements for a private charter with British Airways so we were able to maximize the number of game drives and cut down on flights. Staying at the Kingdom Hotel and seeing Victoria Falls then cruising on the Zambezi River at sunset made for a complete trip after 22 days on the road.”
With a group size of 73 people, Probert and De Almeida each escorted half of the group.
“The groups would meet each morning for breakfast and at night for dinner. All stayed in the same hotels with many private dining options arranged by Exotik,” he said. “The group enjoyed many special gatherings along the way, and many made new lifetime friends.”
This trip led The Bob Family Travel team to produce over $1.2 million in sales for a single booking, marking the highest year-over-year sales growth at TravelOnly for TravelBrands.
Growing the groups business
Every year, the Bob Family team offers escorted trips around the world, which usually have a 60-70% repeat base and 30-40% new referrals.
Probert feels that it is important for travel advisors who are planning group trips to be prepared to provide clients with new experiences — something that they might not be comfortable with doing on their own.
In addition to the aforementioned safari, another successful booking was a once-in-a-lifetime Galapagos trip. After selling out the Celebrity ship over the course of one weekend, they booked the next sailing as well.
He also recommends keeping clients engaged and never being shy about asking for referrals.
On a recent Celebrity cruise Seminar at Sea for travel advisors, Probert and De Almeida were asked to share their secrets of success with other agents.
“There is so much business out there and if we can all help other agents, the industry, and ultimately the consumer, will benefit from the knowledge we all share,” they said. “Do not be afraid to partner and share with other agents.”
They have expanded their own team with four additional agents and plan on adding more on the other side of the pandemic.
“Maria Plouffe, who joined the team two years ago, says she is making more money now since she is part of the Bob Family Travel team than when she was an agent on her own, and loves the support of others,” he adds.
Probert suggests agents start planning now for a comeback, so that they are ready for the business when it comes, and to take advantage of all the online courses available by suppliers. He also stresses the importance of building an email database, calling it a gold mine.
“Make sure you add in comments about the clients — who referred them to you, birthdays, anniversaries, where they travel, children and any other info so you know your client,” he said “Get involved in charities and your local community so you are always giving back and networking at the same time. Also, it is important to be active on social media, as that will drive your future business. Now is the time to build strong relationships with your suppliers who will be your best partners down the road as we exit this, and believe me, we will get out of this. Until we meet again on a cruise ship or at a resort for a FAM, think outside the box and give your clients that WOW factor in the trips you plan.”
Ready for the future
In the middle of all the uncertainty in February and early March, Probert and De Almeida were working on river cruise groups to Vietnam and Cambodia.
“This was something we had been planning on for the past few years,” they said, noting that planning out group departures two to five years in advance often helps their clients plan future trips and increases the success of their groups. “One river group is moving forward, and the entire ship is sold out with a waitlist; the other is on hold until the pandemic is behind them.”
In addition, Probert has had to deal with changing multiple Celebrity groups this year to 2021 and 2022, including the 21st consecutive annual Bob Family Cruise in November.
“Clients know every November they can do a cruise in the Caribbean with the Bob Family,” said Probert, adding that he named the group in the late ’70s when he used to travel on ski trips with his friends. “They wanted an identity, so we named ourselves after Jim Bob Walton from the Walton’s TV show.”
Now that most of their current bookings and cancellations have been dealt with, the team is in full planning mode.
Amidst the ongoing uncertainty, this past week the team launched a special higher end one-way Regent cruise in the Caribbean from Miami to Barbados for 11 days in February 2022. The first allotment sold out in 48 hours.
“People will travel, there is no doubt in my mind,” said Probert, stressing the importance of selling insurance. “Selling insurance is the same as selling a trip — you need to know what you have to offer. As the largest seller of Manulife insurance last year at TravelOnly, when the pandemic hit, we knew clients were protected. We did not tell clients to complete the claim process themselves but completed all claims for clients, sent them their complete package for signature, and are submitting these to the insurer — a service few agents provide.”
De Almeida said they are slowly seeing bookings return for land packages for this coming winter and they’ve seen some recovery in booking trips in the past couple of weeks.
“The generous cancellation policies from all suppliers that allow changes, cancellations or that allow clients to move their bookings forward has helped,” she added.
“If we get a vaccine or anti-viral drug, good higher end places will sell out fast, prices will go up, and suppliers will remove these generous terms and conditions… so book clients now; they will not lose their money or deposits and your clients will have trust in you,” he said. “Something else that is very important is to make sure all details are in email confirmations so the client can acknowledge these and they know what they are buying, and what the terms and conditions are for the trips they are booking. This gives their clients peace of mind and trust.”
Probert has 72 cruises under his belt and De Almeida is approaching 70. They are both optimistic the cruise industry will come out better than before.
“The cruise lines are coming out with new protocols that will make cruising and travelling safe and fun again, and many of our clients cannot wait to be sailing,” they said. “We still have a few clients that are in no hurry to cruise, but once the new protocols come out, we feel our clients will all be back.”
Probert advises that agents should always check all cruise deals every time they come out and review their clients’ current bookings to make sure the price did not drop or extra perks were being offered.
He predicts cruise lines will reinvent the buffet lines, offer contactless check-in at the counters and have filters installed for purified air
“The cruise line industry can create new protocols and programs to adhere to, not only for this virus but other health issues or viruses that might come in the future, making for a stronger and safer cruise industry overall,” he notes.