Coping during COVID-19
This week Travel Courier checks in with Marcia Proctor, travel consultant with TTAND in Cambridge, who was recently voted the #1 travel agent by the Cambridge Times.
What has it been like being a travel advisor during this challenging time?
It took some time for me to truly comprehend that travel was going to be off the table for an extended period of time due to COVID-19. Initially, my focus was just on getting clients home and cancelling trips.
At about the sixth-month mark, it finally sunk in that there wasn’t going to be a quick resolution to the pandemic. That might have been pretty depressing but my host agency, The Travel Agent Next Door, made a concerted effort to engage agents and keep spirits up. That’s helped a lot.
Proctor’s first – and last – taste of haggis during a trip to Scotland in 2016
We’ve now reached the nine months mark of the pandemic. How are things going right now?
It’s been a rollercoaster, but now I’m pretty well just going with the flow, focusing on engaging with clients, booking trips for late 2021 and beyond, and relying more on other skills to generate an income stream. I’m still optimistic, however, that travel will eventually return in full force. For many of us, the lure of exotic destinations, new cultures and exciting adventures is too strong to ignore.
“I definitely think that people will be more inclined to use travel agents going forward. If any of them had to wait on hold to cancel their trip as long as I did for my clients, that alone should be persuasive! In my client communication, I emphasize how I can do the things clients don’t want to do, saving them time and possibly a costly mistake. I ensure they’re aware of entry requirements to various countries, COVID insurance, cancellation terms, etc. They appreciate the added value I offer.“
What do you miss most about travelling?
I haven’t traveled since the travel ban was implemented. What I missed most was the excitement of having a trip to look forward to, so I took the plunge and booked a Baltic cruise with friends for mid-September 2021. I hope to go to Italy after that with another group. Also, when I return, I’ll only have a couple of weeks before heading to Jamaica for our host agency’s much-delayed annual conference. I plan to make up for lost travel time, so am really hoping that these trips will actually happen. A girl can dream!
How have you shifted strategies during the pandemic?
I haven’t shifted strategies during the pandemic as much as I’ve shifted approach. Frequent communication is key. I send out a monthly e-newsletter, reach out regularly through social media and connect with clients through email, phone and Zoom. I was doing these things previously, but not to the same extent.
The other aspect that I’ve focused on is raising my profile locally. I moved to Cambridge, Ontario three years ago and it’s been challenging to meet people, especially as I work from home. I had already joined several networking groups and have been attending their Zoom sessions regularly. I’m speaking on a local podcast about travel next week. I’m doing more local advertising. Trying to build connections during a time of social distancing has been tough, but something’s working as I was recently named Cambridge’s top travel agent of the year by readers of our community newspaper. I’m pretty proud of that!
If there’s one positive thing that’s come out of this situation, it’s been that more people have seen the value of using a travel agent firsthand. Do you agree? How can advisors get this message out?
I definitely think that people will be more inclined to use travel agents going forward. If any of them had to wait on hold to cancel their trip as long as I did for my clients, that alone should be persuasive! In my client communication, I emphasize how I can do the things clients don’t want to do, saving them time and possibly a costly mistake. I ensure they’re aware of entry requirements to various countries, COVID insurance, cancellation terms, etc. They appreciate the added value I offer.
In addition, I’ve been using the time to increase my knowledge through webinars, subject matter expert programs and supplier training courses. I let my clients know what I’ve been working on, usually through posts on social media. I also started a group for solo travellers and have been sharing opportunities with members. My aim is to let clients and contacts know that I have been putting the “down time” to good use so they will have even greater confidence in working with me.
What are you focusing on right now? Are you doing anything to grow business through domestic travel?
My specialty is Europe and I really haven’t focused on domestic travel – nor had many requests for it. If I see an especially good deal or an interesting opportunity, I will post about it on social media, e.g., specials for Canadian residents or “new” ways to see our country, such as RV and houseboat rentals.
My focus right now is to stay front and centre and keep the conversation about travel going. Just because people aren’t currently going anywhere doesn’t mean they can’t think about their next trip!
How has travel impacted your own life?
My family moved around a lot when I was a kid, including stints in the U.S., England and a year spent sailing in the U.K. and Caribbean. I think that early exposure to other cultures honed my natural curiosity about people and places. The fact that my husband and I had traveled extensively eventually led to my career as a travel agent. I believe my ability to think like a traveler, envisioning myself in my clients’ shoes, helps me zero in on what would make their trip meaningful and memorable.
How long have you been in the industry and what are some of your secrets to success?
I’ve been a travel agent for over five years, all with The Travel Agent Next Door. I’m not sure that I have any secrets, but I do my best to give my clients a valuable, personalized experience when they travel and great service. Those elements make it clear to them that they’re getting more than they could by planning a trip themselves and booking online. That leads to referrals.
Expertise isn’t something that can be developed overnight. It takes a combination of research and practical experience. When I first started in this business, I took advantage of every opportunity to learn about our suppliers, their offers, new destinations, etc. I still listen to webinars and take as many courses as possible, though my focus now is on my niche market of Europe. Thanks to fams and my own travel, I’ve been able to experience various travel styles and destinations personally. Nothing is more effective in selling than being able to share a magical, first-hand experience.
Like most agents, I also believe it’s important to develop a connection with a potential client early. I find common ground, share a little of my personal story, meet face-to-face or at least talk on the phone. Once you create that human bond, you’re more than just a name on a business card and folks are more likely to book with you.
It’s also important to develop strong relationships with suppliers. A personaI connection with a BDM can be invaluable when you need a resource for information or assistance.
In addition, I take full advantage of the marketing and administrative help available through my host agency. These staff members take care of many of the back-office aspects, freeing me to sell travel. They’re experts at what they do and help me grow my business.
What do you think is standing in the way of recovery?
The travel ban and 14-day quarantine certainly inhibit travel, though some clients are still sallying forth, particularly to Mexico and the Caribbean. A vaccine is imperative to restore confidence in travel.
Anything else to add?
It’s a good thing I love being a travel agent as I think my retirement start date is a year or two further down the road than I thought it was, thanks to the pandemic!