5 Steps to Finding Groups (It’s Not as Hard as You Think)

Part 1 in a 3-Part Series

Why Book Groups:

Whether it’s your local Stitch ‘N Bitch [1. Take note, HARdy HAR HAR readers: the first time Mary uses a curse word in an article!] chapter taking craft to sea, or a Game of Thrones reenactment group jetting to Northern Ireland, booking group travel is something that travel advisors need to consider for advisors who are looking to increase their income potential. (Want other ideas to boost your income, read up on charging service or consultation fees here.)

Why is this? The average income of experienced advisors who reported selling groups was $43,128 while the average income among those who did not book groups was $39,262. (. . . And we have plenty more info on travel agent income right here.)

This comes out to a 9.8% raise—who doesn’t want nearly $4k extra per year? Right? Okay, so I know I’m preaching to the choir. What advisors don’t want to earn more money after all? But, in our 2018 income survey, only 28.8% of advisors reported that they book groups (regardless of group size).

But it’s more than just money: Booking groups can also lead to more perks & amenities, more referrals, more FAM opportunities. What’s not to love? But it can be intimidating if you’re venturing into uncharted territory. But that’s what we’re here to help you with.

Are Groups Unicorns? No. A 5-Step Exercise to Find or Create Groups

Maybe you’re thinking, $#%@ you Mary! I spent ten bajillion hours (on this site) deciding on my niche and agency name, and now you’re here telling me to do something completely different. But if you don’t already book groups, it’s okay. It really is. You do not need to start from the scratch. In fact, you can use your niche and leverage the marketing skills you already have to appeal to groups rather than individuals. We’re not reinventing the wheel . . . we're just taking your vehicle to a slightly different destination. 🙂

Before I dig in, I want to backpedal and chat on the two main kinds of groups. 

  1. Affinity Group: Affinity groups are pre-existing groups—the Stitch ‘n Bitchers and Game of Thrones fangirls I was talking about earlier. Affinity groups can be good for first-time bookers because you don't have to herd everyone. The herd is already together, unified in their desire to travel together. With affinity groups, you’ll likely work a pied piper—travel agent speak for a group leader—who will help you market the group and act as the hub of communication between you (the advisor) and the other travelers.
  2. Speculative Group: Groups that are speculative are those that are centered around a destination or trip rather than event. With a speculative group, a travel agent will block a group of rooms on a cruise or resort without knowing who will fill them. The travelers who join an agent’s speculative group may not know each other. The agent will market to that ship/destination or trip and try to find people to book it. Speculative groups are more risky because you don’t know exactly what you’ll need and how much of it. I don’t want to show my cards early, but travel agent group expert and trainer, Valerie Gossett doesn’t train her agents in group space until they’ve been at it for at least two years. So if you’re just cutting your teeth on booking groups, you will likely want to start with affinity groups. 

Now we're just getting to the fun part! Download the finding and building groups worksheet above. The worksheet itself will walk you through the steps, but read on below for a bit more depth and examples . . . class is officially in session! 

Step 1: Potential Groups from Your Network

It’s easier to woo an affinity group than it is to build one from scratch (aka speculative group). Groups are everywhere. They can be formal and structured such as book clubs and spin classes or they can be informal/unstructured communities such as student campus groups or retiree communities. If you're a beginner, it's probably safest to start out with an affinity group (refer back to the speculative group definition above for why that is!).

If you’re already selling travel and have already found your niche, this will be easy for you. In order to help suss out group travel prospects, take a moment to create a list (on the worksheet you downloaded above):

What structured groups are you directly involved with?

Think first about where you spend the most time and energy. Groups that you’re involved in and have developed relationships through. For example, some of the activities I’m participating in now include baby swim classes, teaching creative writing and serving on the board of a nonprofit. 

You may also want to think about some past groups—the last couple of years or so—as well. So I might make my list like this:

  1. Running Club 
  2. Meditation group
  3. Writing Groups & Conferences
  4. Volunteer and board member for MPWW (a nonprofits)
  5. Attended a novel retreat 

Now, what social communities are you a part of? Who is in your daily/weekly/monthly life or circle? Some examples might be:

  1. Immediate/Extended Family
  2. Spiritual/contemplative/religious community
  3. Writing community/ readings
  4. Co-workers/ former Co-workers
  5. Daycare or school parent groups
  6. Retiree communities

What online groups are you most active in? For example:

  1. Alumnae Group
  2. Extended family group
  3. Travel industry-related groups
  4. Fantasy Football group (this is pure fiction for me, btw :) )

Step 2: Other Hobbies and Interests

Make a list of other hobbies or interests that you have that may or may not not have any formal group element. For me it would be:

  1. Baking and cooking & binge watching The Great British Bake Off (and eating)
  2. Cute dogs
  3. Reading
  4. Playing board games
  5. Biking & Hiking
  6. Going to literary readings
  7. Season tickets to soccer games (with friends)

Who shares these interests? After you’ve made that list, think of people you have connected with through those interests? Is there any group potential there? 

Step 3: Current Group Travel Trends (& Your Niche)

Taking a pulse of group trends is a good way to begin approaching group bookings. Travel Joy —a booking app for travel advisors—shared some data with HAR about the top ten group types and destination.

Top 10 Group Types

  1. Cruise
  2. Family reunion
  3. Birthday
  4. Wedding
  5. Disney
  6. Girls trip
  7. Anniversary
  8. Spring break
  9. Marathon
  10. Wine tour

Top 10 Group Destinations

  1. Bahamas
  2. Jamaica
  3. Mexico
  4. Alaska
  5. Las Vegas
  6. Dubai
  7. Dominican Republic
  8. Cuba
  9. Tanzania
  10. Costa Rica

Check to see if there are any intersections between these group types and destinations and your interests/ groups. Do any of the group types naturally align with your niche? (Psst. If you don't have a niche yet, you can consider this link your hall pass to take a break to check out this article.) Is there a literary festival going on in Las Vegas? Is Alaska an ideal location for an alternative spring break trip for students who’d prefer to bike and hike rather than bum around on the beach?

This may also help you identify if you want to pursue an affinity group or a speculative group. 

Step 4: Identify potential group leaders

Part of the beauty of booking groups is consolidating your work efforts. If you are wrangling payment info from, marketing to, discussing details with, fielding questions for 10, 20, 30 travelers this benefit greatly diminishes.

Every pied piper should wear a cloak, otherwise they are not legit.

Focus on finding one group leader, not on the entire group. The travel advisor jargon for this group leader is pied piper. Working with an effective pied piper will prevent you from becoming overwhelmed. 

But how do you determine who the pied piper is? Consider who within these groups you are most connected to. Which people in these groups are natural leaders? Who has visited the destination you are going to? Who has influence, coordinates or makes decisions within these groups? Who is most enthusiastic about this group? 

If you are close with some of the people in these social networks, there’s an opportunity to see what other communities they are involved with too. Who has an adult child getting married? (50% of weddings in 2017 were 200+ miles away from home according to Cindy Webster at Apple Vacations.) Who’s anticipating a family reunion? Who has a big anniversary coming up? Do any of these events align with you niche? If so, add it to your list of group prospects!

This isn’t about making a hard sell to these groups or individuals as much as it is about building relationships and training your mind to identify potential for group travel. Opportunity doesn’t always come and tap you on the shoulder. Sometimes you may have to seek it out among the crowd—and this will help you know what to look for.

Step 5. Grassroots Marketing 

After you’ve completed this exercise, think of three ways you can tweak your grassroots marketing to address these hot spots. To avoid overwhelming yourself, just pick a few of the steps below:

  1. Re-engage with an online social group if you haven’t connected for awhile.
  2. For throwback Thursday, post a personal story about a group trip you loved taking/booking the past. Or share about a trip you’re excited to be planning for the future. 
  3. Are clients posting about a trip you planned? Be sure to follow them and share their posts! 
  4. Invite potential group members & leaders to an informal potluck at your house or a cocktail hour on the town. 
  5. Look at any current marketing and/or website you are currently using. Does it need a refresh to address some of the current trends? 
  6. If you have booked a group before, ask a former client to write a testimonial for you website or FB page that directly addresses their group travel experience (even if it’s a smaller group!) 
  7. Even if you haven’t booked a group yet, ask a client to write a testimonial for your site. Have you sent a client to any of the top 10 destinations or group types? If so, start there!

(Want some more marketing resources? Check out our other blog posts on marketing.)

Start Slow: While You Wait for Groups to Grow

You likely know by now that this is not the industry for instant gratification. So now that you’ve planted the seeds for booking group travel, what will you do while you wait for you new group business to come to fruition?

What I’m about to say may sound really odd: Sometimes you can book groups without having a group. Suppliers want you to book groups. More business to you translates to more moolah for them. Because of this some suppliers (like Apple Vacations and Delta Vacations) want to make booking groups really easy—almost no different than booking an individual traveler.

I like to call these groups “non-contracted” groups. (However, I made that up so if you google it, you’ll probably hit a dead end.) Suppliers will have different names for these kinds of groups. Apple Vacations for example calls it “Group Ease.” Delta Vacations calls it “Flexible Groups.” Think of non contracted groups as risk-free, so there’s no penalty if you don’t reach a certain number of travelers.

Non-contracted groups are a nice in-between spot for FITs and groups and are typically better for smaller groups (Cindy Webster from Apple Vacations suggested to use this for groups of fewer than 20 people or 10 rooms). With these groups, travelers don’t have to go together or be participating in the same event. They don’t even have to know each other—they just have to be going to the same destination. For example, with Apple Vacations travelers don’t have to arrive on the same day. With Delta Vacations, the travelers don’t even have to be staying at the same properties.

Typically, suppliers like Apple Vacations or Delta Vacations who offer this type of booking will give you a promo code once you hit a certain number of people or rooms booked. You can book these non-contracted groups online the same as you’d book an FIT (free independent traveler).

So if you’re booking 10-20 students who happen to be going to Puerto Vallarta during spring break around the same but don’t know one another, you can contact your supplier and receive a promo code once you hit the pseudo-group minimum (ask your supplier what the minimum is!).

While it’s a not a “true” group, you may have potential to earn more income without marketing or booking travel any differently. Booking groups, in general, has a higher commission potential. For "flexible" groups, the commission falls somewhere between your standard commission and a contracted group commission. (You can read more on commission structures here). 

The best part about this? You don’t have to do anything different. You don’t have to worry about when each person/ couple books or wait for a group leader to wrangle everyone’s info and payment for one deadline. (That’s right, you can keep using what software or process you currently use to organize your individual travelers). Each person or couple booking can go at their own pace and may receive different quotes if they book at different times.

So this will hold you over until your business really starts attracting larger groups. And who knows, maybe those stray spring break students will meet one another and decide to travel together next year.

Already Booking Groups?

Every month we hear from a handful of people who have been booking group travel for years without being a travel agent! HORRORS! 😱 Do you book everyone’s cabins on your annual cruise with all your friends? Cross country family reunion? Maybe you arrange and book all the travel for your company. Whatever it is, if you’ve been booking travel without earning commissions, you definitely need to check out our 7-Day Set Up: A Travel Agency Challenge. Even if you don’t aspire to be a full-time travel agent, earning commissions on travel you were going to book anyway just makes sense!

We’re Just Getting Started.

Phew, you did some great work. But maybe you’re wondering about some of the nitty gritty steps. What do I do once I actually snag group business? What about the logistics of booking the group? How do I qualify their trip? How do I stay organized?

Don’t worry. I have your back. Coming up next will be The Top Tips for Booking Groups from Travel Advisors and then another bounty of group booking advice from suppliers. I can barely contain myself. 

About the Author

Mary Stein

Mary Stein has been working as a writer and editor for Host Agency Reviews since 2016. She loves supporting travel advisors on their entrepreneurial journey and is inspired by their passion, tenacity, and creativity. Mary is also a mom, dog lover, fiction writer, hiker, and a Great British Bake Off superfan.