Lessons Learned: Our Pandemic Year
No travel agency was spared the blow of the pandemic. Everyone was affected in one way or another.
Now that we are seeing the rebound take hold, we took time to reflect on what we have learned through the experience of the past year.
When the pandemic hit, no one had time to stockpile resources or make changes to insulate themselves from what was coming. The condition of your business entering March 2020 was the way you started the pandemic.
The approach for everyone during those first few months was handled very differently. The very first thing we did at Gifted Travel Network was to assure our entire staff that their jobs were safe. We were not laying anyone off or reducing any hours. Not only was this a relief to the entire GTN team, but it meant we were able to serve our members at the high level they had become accustomed to when the world was still “normal.”
While the advisors in our network were dealing with long hold times and how to best assist their clients, we knew our team was struggling too. We had six team members with school-aged children who were navigating working from home and virtual schooling, so we hired a part-time nanny to rotate between their homes to help. We also hired a part-time engagement coordinator to help keep the dialogue with members open and encouraging, and we hired a full-time marketing professional to provide much-needed help to our marketing team. We were able to make those hires possible due to our strong financial position coming into 2020, and we understood that was critical to keeping the ship at a steady float.
From the beginning, we increased our communication and support for our members. We knew they were beyond stressed dealing with rebookings and cancellations as well as a tremendous amount of uncertainty that comes from not knowing what the future holds. We started weekly Zoom calls for the entire network. In the beginning, those calls served as venting sessions, allowing our advisors to listen and share their frustrations. They then transitioned to sharing information on the various federal programs that could provide much-needed financial relief. These weekly calls provided a sense of normalcy and connection that were much appreciated by our members.
After the wave of cancellations and rebookings settled down, we shifted our training focus to entrepreneurial skills, marketing, and systems. We knew this downtime was the perfect way to put new systems in place, create new processes, focus on marketing, and all the “things” that most travel entrepreneurs do not have time to focus on. This paid off handsomely for our members when the rebound started to occur.
Because many advisors were sharing what their host agency was focused on, our inboxes were flooded with emails and phone calls from travel advisors who wanted to know more about hosting with us. Some had long been interested in becoming a member of GTN, but the idea of navigating a switch was too much to contemplate at the time. Now, that their bookings were the smallest they had been in years, they knew it was the perfect time to make the switch. We were even getting inquiries from individuals who were interested in becoming travel advisors because they knew this was a temporary setback and travel would resume.
Between March and December of 2020, we were able to onboard 35 experienced advisors and enrolled 53 people in our Travel MBA travel entrepreneurship coaching program. Each of those 53 individuals invested $5,000 to either launch a new travel business, or revamp one that was struggling. While some experienced travel advisors were questioning the future of the industry, these individuals were confident travel would rebound and wanted to be ready to serve clients with a profitable business.
Like many organizations, we converted our in-person events to virtual events. These served two critical purposes: they kept our members connected, and they provided a way for advisors to connect with their clients. From hosting wine tastings and mixology sessions to cooking classes, our members’ creative abilities did not fall short. These virtual events led to great success with many members filling groups for 2022 and 2023!
In June we hosted Travel Entrepreneurship Week – a free event open to everyone in the travel industry. More than 2,000 travel advisors registered to attend. Then in October, we hosted a virtual conference for our members leveraging what we had learned from the virtual events group coaching program we invested in. The feedback from this event was incredible! Many members said it was better than events hosted by larger organizations with deeper pockets.
We also launched a brand-new event to support ASTA in a time when they were working harder for advisors than ever before. We created the first ASTA Awareness Day that raised more than $30,000 for ASTA PAC.
All in all, the past 15 months have been incredibly busy. Of course, there was frustration and uncertainty along the way, but we never doubted that travel advisors would come out of this as superheroes. Before the pandemic the demand for travel advisors was incredible and we were confident that post-pandemic the demand would be even greater – something we have seen come to fruition in the past 3 months.
We count our blessings that we not only weathered this storm but came out stronger than before. Yes, our income took a hit just like it did for every single agency in the country. But we never had to reduce staff, cut hours, or reduce pay. We kept our team together and have since expanded it by hiring an additional three employees to serve our members. We have seen the payoff from the work our members put in by staying in touch with clients, hosting virtual events to reach new clients, and being a positive beacon for the future of travel.
We are thrilled to be entering a golden age for travel advisors. One where they are in demand appreciated for their skills and are far more profitable than ever before. The future truly looks bright!