10 Insider Group Booking Tips from Travel Advisors [+Infographic]
This is the 1st of 3 articles in in our "Booking Group Travel Series. You can read the rest here:
- "5 Steps to Finding Groups (It's Not As Hard As You Think)"
- Here’s What Suppliers Want You to Know About Booking Groups
"Groups are one of the most profitable ways to earn commission in our industry . . . If you aren’t booking groups, you are leaving $40k on the table"
These are the wise words of Valerie Gossett, group travel advisor extraordinaire. While few reasonable people (who are not filthy rich) would walk away from a $40k bonus doing what they love, booking group travel can seem daunting if you don't know where to begin. (If you haven't read our first article primer on finding groups, that's a good start.)
But I'm here to tell you that it's not as hard as you think. Why do I know this? Because I chatted with six amazing travel advisors who've mastered the craft of booking group travel and they're here to share their wisdom with you.
With a little research (hey, that's why you're here right?!) and determination, you most certainly can do it too. And if you're on the path to becoming a pro already this is a good spot to brush up on your skills.
Without further ado . . . Meet the agents who weighed in on group booking tips! Truth be told, 10 tips is a really shy estimate . . . and you have these shining stars to thank.
1. Do Your Research
Research is key to developing a memorable group. You'll need to research suppliers to make sure you understand their basic groups booking policy. If you want to book an affinity group, you'll need to find someone influential to help promote your group. Doing your homework will ensure that you know what you're getting into and starting your group off on the right foot.
Here's how these agents do it:
"Each cruise line and each resort/tour operator . . . for land vacations will be different. So you have to know this ahead of time, before booking the group space. The differences [between suppliers] come into play for any of the above as to how many rooms/cabins constitute a tour conductor, when payments are due, what is non refundable and when final payments are due.
Cruise lines have it where you have the group put together and you book the cabins within the group. You don’t have to call anyone for this.
Tour operators for land vacations have a group code or a group contract. So you would start with talking to the groups dept. so you can get the code to apply or sign a contract. The steps are very specific especially with a group for a land vacation."
"I check the group leader’s (or potential group leader) Facebook page to see how many followers they have. I go on their website and research them to figure out if it’s a good fit for a group.
When I’m out and about I’ll go into a store, yoga studio or wine place, brewery or whatever I’m thinking of doing and always hand out my card and ask if they would be interested in creating a group with their followers.
When I’m traveling for fun I will always do the same thing out of town as well. I’m always marketing and always thinking of new ways to get business."
2. Qualify Your Group
Is it possible to make everyone happy? Yes. As a travel advisor, you are a miracle worker. So even if you have a group with diverse needs or interests, you'll need to be sure to accommodate those varying tastes.
But how do discover what those interests are when you're wrangling 20-200 travelers? These agents have some ideas:
"I have a 'Client Conversation' form that I use when meeting new clients about what they are looking for. I’m sure the questions are similar to what other’s ask, but I like to make sure the questions are more open-ended so that they feel like we are having a conversation and not an interview.
Examples of questions I ask are: 'What is your dream?' 'Which of your past trips have you loved or not loved?' 'Why did you feel that way, do you think?' 'What type of experience are you looking for, a Chevrolet pickup experience, or a Mercedes sedan experience?'
Budget is super important, of course, but I try to listen more to what they are actually saying they want. You can show them what they get for the budget they give you, but often they decide it’s worth paying a little more for that 5-star experience instead. Listen to their hearts as well as their words."
"Ask them if they are making the decision on the itinerary/date or is there a group that will be making that decision. Make sure you are talking with all the people involved.
Also find out if you are the only TA they are speaking with — sometimes if there is a group of people involved in the decision then each one will be talking to a different TA."
"Find out the real purpose of the group. Asking open ended questions about why they want to travel and what they want to experience is important to finding the right itinerary or type of group, be it a cruise or land based.
Cruise groups will tend to book their excursions in advance, whereas my Mexico & Caribbean land-based groups seem to take a 'wait and see' approach based on weather, or if they want to 'shop' for a deal once they are there.
Dining is another difference — large groups on cruises may choose to dine together a few nights in the main dining room, but then opt for a smaller group at some of the specialty restaurants the other nights. Land based groups will break into smaller groups for dinner as often many restaurants don't hold larger groups."
3. Start With Your Niche & Book What You Know
It might be tempting to try to throw yourself into a group that's trending. But if your niche is culinary river cruise travel experiences, booking a destination wedding may not make sense (even if it is popular) especially if you don't have the passion for (or knowledge of) destination wedding clientele and travel. If you focus mainly on cruises, then starting out with an all-inclusive land trip may be setting yourself up for failure. These agents say more:
"All-inclusive groups are a little more detailed and have complicated contracts and more stringent deposit deadlines, and as I know cruises through and through, it’s going to be a learning curve for me"
"Don’t go to something you don’t know about. If you’re at the Y[MCA] all the time, oh my gosh that’s perfect, put together a fitness cruise. Talk to the teacher, to the people, and that’s how it starts. And it’s actually so easy."
4. Plan Ahead (waaaaaaay ahead)
Even solo travelers may plan a trip over a year out. But with groups, you want to reserve space a early as you possibly can—and this becomes even more important if you're booking a special group (i.e. a new cruise ship or cruise destination that may sell out immediately).
The earlier you reserve space, the longer you have for marketing your group (which is especially important for affinity groups). Plus, the rates are more likely to be lower when space first opens. When it comes to booking groups, the early bird truly does get all the worms. But don't take my word for it.
"I try to book that group as soon as it becomes available. I’ve booked groups that were over two years out already. After all, the longer you have it on the books, the longer you have to sell it."
"When getting any type of group space the sooner you get the space the better the price. When I started booking groups it was roughly 8 months out. Now when I put together groups it’s roughly a year and half out for best pricing and availability."
5. Find an Effective Pied Piper
A pied piper is someone who leads your groups and serves as the go-between for you (the agent) and the travelers. An organized and effective pied piper will ensure that you can focus on doing what you do best—plan and book travel—rather than answer the same question 100's of times.
"It really is best, if possible, to limit the decision-makers in the group. The more people’s opinions you have, the longer it takes to come to a consensus. Once the group is established with the itinerary and pricing, people are more apt to sign on. If it’s open-ended, people tend to want to put limits on."
"This year I had my largest and most successful group ever. I reached out to the owner of a large fitness company with 90,000+ Facebook followers. I asked her if we could chat and we arranged a call and I explained how cost effective having an annual conference at sea is compared to the one she had at a local hotel for the past 10 years.
I led a 75 Cabin group on Royal Caribbean and she thanked me on stage for finding her and talking her into doing a cruise. It was the first annual and it will grow each year going forward."
"If a client tends to travel with a particular group once or twice a year, frequents a destination often, or give signals like I should become a travel agent, that's my cue to offer them the option of earning their travel or becoming an IC."
6. Choose Your Suppliers Carefully
Booking a group is probably not the time to take a new supplier (new to you) out for a test drive. When you first start, you'll probably want to pick from your own personal preferred supplier list. (Want to know more about preferred supplier? We have more info on that). Finding a supplier with a supportive BDM can elevate your group trip from average to amazing. How do these expert agents choose?
"Generally I pick the suppliers that I have the most knowledge and information on and the ones whose business development managers are easily accessible to assist me with my group and are as excited about my group as I am . . . [To book] I like the old fashioned telephone. I call the groups department and get started booking.
I keep a printed confirmation on each couple or individual in the group that I book. I jot down lots of information on that confirmation when I call to book it, I write down the name of the individual I used to make the deposit, make a payment, add insurance etc. Then I keep those confirmations in a folder in alphabetical order, they are easily transportable wherever I go."
"I go to my favorites as I have built amazing supplier relationships through the years. Though I have my #1 favorites, I like to spread my own business around. It also depends on the group itself: My top 4 are Celebrity, Royal Caribbean, NCL and Carnival for large groups. I’m working on more luxury-focused groups . . . working with Azamara and Crystal for future exciting, interesting groups as well."
7. Stay Organized
With group travel, small mistakes have bigger consequences, so staying organized is key no matter how you do it. Here's how these agents keep tabs on deadlines.
"I use Excel and that works best for me to stay organized.
I also use the old fashion way and have a Group Notebook on all my groups where I store a lot of information that is very portable to keep with me when traveling or out of an area where I don’t have internet or phone availability.
Keep all important dates and deadlines in your calendar. Start a group email and keep your clients tuned in to all important deadlines as well."
"I wish I had known that booking groups requires a ton of organization. I have developed my own spreadsheets and reminder system so that nothing falls through the cracks.
Yes, the rewards are great, but so is the amount of work required to make it work well, so that you’re not touching all of the pieces more than you need to . . .
I do not use a specific program or software, except for iCal, the calendar on my computer, and Excel, of course. I put all important deadlines, payments, etc in my calendar to keep track. In addition, I’ll put in reminders a week prior that it’s coming, so that these deadlines don’t sneak up on me.
It seems super archaic but it works for me. Every group also has several excel spreadsheets that will include big details such as payments amounts and passport info, but also small details such as seating preferences and dietary restrictions."
"Once the group is in place, usually the group leader will have their own team put together a google form that I receive. I ask for Legal names as it appears on travel docs, dates of birth, address, phone and email – then I enter the client into Freedom (The Oasis booking engine).
I don’t use a CRM or any software (I know that’s the norm) but I’m a bit technically challenged and my own system of keeping a file for each group with all of the client's info in each file works for me. I send a credit card authorization to each client with the date of deposit and final payment so that I can automatically charge them when each deadline approaches.
Oasis has great marketing tools available to their agents (who I know consider it a Godsend). I just use the payment reminders in Freedom. I print out a list and it has all of my clients' trips with the final payment date (and they give a few days ahead reminder) so I keep that on my desk and check it daily. Then I book the cabin directly with the cruise line, and pull the individual reservation into Freedom as well.
I keep all of the credit card info on one spreadsheet as the group leaders charge their own markup directly with the client . . . it makes more sense than running it through the cruise line as they use it for expenses (gift bags, T-shirts, etc to bring to the event).
If I have name changes, questions, etc, I call the groups department directly."
"I would suggest starting your spreadsheet or whatever you are using with the first cabin/room booked. Don’t book a few and then play catch up. Input the information as you go along. If you have a group leader then always keep them updated as to who has booked as you go along."
"Personally, I was very accustomed to ClientBase when I was actively selling. Today I have 16 ICs that use their own program—everything from Tess to Excel.
I asked some of my DWHSA members and there was the consensus: VCRM and TravelJoy seemed to be the top 2 for handling groups. They each had their own reasons for liking the program they use:
- TravelJoy: Being able to contact each group member or collectively as a group; see when those emails have been viewed or a file opened. Clients can access their itinerary via an App, training staff is thorough and prompt, video help files. It's easy, efficient, intuitive. [Advisors] can import and store files, such as copies of a client's passport.
- VCRM: Commission reporting is very easy, prompt support, open to ideas. It's designed by travel agents for travel agents, it's a workhorse, robust, so many features to use.
8. Find Creative Uses for Tour Conductor Credits and Amenity Points
Tour conductor credits (TC) and amenity points are one of the huge benefits of booking groups! Tour Conductor credits are the free spaces an agent earns for selling a certain volume of travel. For example, on a cruise, an agent may earn a free berth for every 16 cabins they book.
Amenity points is a term for other perks you can offer your clients—such as in-room champagne, a cocktail hour (for a group), or some swag. Different suppliers will call this different things and have different guidelines.
How you use your TC credits will depend on your group and can go a long way to making your clients feel like they're getting VIP treatment. Do you want a TC credit for yourself? Do you give to it to a pied piper or spread the discount evenly among guests? Do you use amenity points for a cocktail hour or in-room gifts? Hear how these agents juggle their TC credits:
"I use the tour conductors credits by giving them back to my clients for their cruises if they bring me a designated number of cabins. I generally try to pick more than one pied piper so to speak and let them sell in to the group as well because there is a benefit to them, they are significant in building the group. I also give referral bonuses to anyone who refers someone in to my group in the way of on board credit."
"I always offer the group leader the first TC to build loyalty. When it’s a large group and people are bringing their staff (at least 45 cabins . . . and definitely 100) I will offer more than one.
I've used the GAP points for a welcome cocktail party and if there's any extra, I add it as onboard credit for the guest cabins. I will always lead anything over 25 cabins and I pay for my own room unless there are extra TC’s for me . . . as (again) loyalty is important and it goes a long way with my generosity."
"When deciding what to do with the TC credit(s) or amenity points I ask the group leader what they might want and get them involved in the decision. What if no one drinks and you have a one hour cocktail party arranged? I give them some options.
Depending on the group make up I have put together scavenger hunts on cruise ships, getting a group excursion for zip-lining or an adventure park . . . I find out what this group may be interested in and then go from there."
"When a couple earns free rooms based on their group total, I give what they receive back to them minus my commission I've lost on the total. Cruises, I tend to apply the TC to the group's total in order reduce the cost for the guest."
9. Make Sure Your Customer Service is A++++++
It probably goes without saying that you need to have great customer service skills. But with groups, the stakes are even higher and it becomes even more important to go above and beyond. These travel advisors have great tips to make sure their clients are getting VIP treatment:
"[My] first group came from our golf club, when a few of the guys discovered they all had 'big' anniversaries the next year, and discussed that it would be a good idea to take a trip together to celebrate. My husband came home and reported this, so I scheduled a meeting at the club shortly thereafter so we could discuss.
I served appetizers and drinks and took a big risk doing that as I hadn’t really done a ton of business up until that point. I was only about 5 months into the business and investing several hundred dollars just to feed people felt “risky” but you have to take risks to be successful.
I do spoil my groups. We meet a couple of times so that everyone can get comfortable. At the meetings we discuss the itinerary, what to pack, how to handle money, anything they want to talk about. I also keep communication lines open at all times, with newsy group emails to build excitement.
I’ve found that the best time to start talking about your own group is after you’ve already done the trip. Your experiences are what give you incredible credibility. People get excited about signing onto their favorite social media site to see what you’ve posted about your trip. Then when you are back from your trip, ask who might be interested in going back with you! Get them dreaming, and they are much more likely to follow through, especially if they can read the excitement and confidence you have about a destination and about traveling, in general."
10. Organic Marketing Is Your Friend
"Be as vocal and present as possible. Be ENTHUSIASTIC about what you are promoting and believe in what you are selling. Always have information at your fingertips, no matter where you go and talk, talk, talk."
"Social media is my best marketing tool. I do not advertise or create flyers. Along with social media, going and traveling myself is the best way I’ve found to generate excitement. Go travel and enjoy, share it with your friends, family, and followers, and then invite them along for the next time.
Once you have a list of people who have expressed interest either directly or on social media, maybe host an informational meeting. Many of my meetings are held in my home, where clients feel a part of my life and can catch the passion. Also, informational emails are sent to past clients I think might be interested, or to people who have expressed interest on social media. These will include the basics of the trip you are planning: Dates, cost, number of people you are taking, etc.
And finally, for those spring break or family groups, my best advice is to do a great job for that first one (maybe it’s your own family?) and your reputation for taking special care of clients will precede you."
"My first group was from the owner of a local pizza parlor that had a group of friends that cruised every year and wasn’t happy with his agent (I later found out he was booking direct with the cruise line) – when I met him I told him I would love to be his travel agent and I went in every week for 3 months to buy a pizza from him – one day he called me and said “I’m ready” I booked 16 cabins (in 2008) and that started a domino effect of repeat and referral clients."
"You can’t be a secret agent. So when you go to the Y, wear a shirt (not with your company logo) with a cruise ship on it. Wear a shirt with the destination where the cruise ship goes. I’ve been in sales for 30 years. No one wants to be sold. But they do want to talk about travel."
Bonus track . . . our travel agent infographic
We like to pick travel advisors' brains about what they know now they wish they'd known then. So we asked our esteemed advisors what they wish they'd known starting out and arranged it into a nifty infographic:
Don't miss out & THANK YOU to our über agents!!!!!!
Thank you soooooooooo much to our advisors who took time out their busy busy schedules to chat and email with me (seriously, booking groups is no joke and these advisors are busy as all get out). So thank you so very much to Janet Tracy of The Travel Dreamer (an IC with Oasis Travel Network), Lisa Sheldon of I Do Island Weddings and the Destination Weddings and Honeymoons Association (independent with Travel Leaders Network Consortia), Kathryn Burns (an IC with Andavo Travel), Patty Baumer of Cruise Fun+ (an IC with Travel Planners International), Valerie Gossett of Premier Resources Travel Group (an IC with Travel Planners International) and Deb Fogarty of Be Well Travel (an IC with Oasis Travel Network).
It's no small favor for these agents to (gladly) sharing their wisdom derived from many many years of experience and trial and error. You can thank them for the all the secret shortcuts!
Psst . . . Does Deb's name sound familiar to you?! That's probably because you heard her on our Travel Agent Chatter Vol. 3! If you didn't catch her, you gotta go tune in to our podcast series stat!
There is more where this came from! Don't miss our first blog in the series, 5 Steps to Finding Groups (It's Not as Hard as You Think.) And because magic tricks happen in 3s, we're going to round out our group booking series with a supplier perspective too! So stay tuned!