Here’s What Suppliers Want You to Know About Booking Groups

December 11, 2018

This is the 1st of 3 articles in in our "Booking Group Travel Series. You can read the rest here:

  1. "5 Steps to Finding Groups (It's Not As Hard As You Think)"
  2. 10 Insider Group Booking Tips From Travel Advisors

Awhile back, I posted an article that was kind of like a travel agent tell-all on the secrets to booking groups . . . scandalous! Well, not really (though they did provide a lot of juicy details). However what was scandalous is that I promised a third installment and have yet to deliver.

But the wait is over! Here, you’re getting even more info about booking groups except from a supplier perspective. I chatted with Gina West, National Groups Sales Manager for Apple Vacations; Mark Yacker, Director of Sales and Richard Cartaciano, Manager of Group Sales at Trafalgar; and Michael Comeau, National Sales Manager, Groups with Rocky Mountaineer.

The info will prepare you to approach land suppliers like a boss and give you insights on how to build really positive relationships with groups Business Development Managers (BDMs).

We’re going to cover info like:

  1. A supplier’s take on type of groups
  2. How suppliers can help you market your trip
  3. What you need to know about your group before you contact your BDM [+downloadable cheatsheet]
  4. Insider tips from suppliers
  5. A groups booking calculator to manage your deadlines

If you’d rather start from square one, check out our previous two articles about booking groups:

  1. 5 Steps to Finding Groups (It’s Not as Hard as You Think)
  2. 10 Insider Group Booking Tips from Travel Advisors [+ Infographic]

First Steps: A Supplier's Take on Groups

In our first installment, we chatted about speculative groups and affinity groups, and what that travel agent jargon means.

Suppliers may also have unique names for different types of groups as well. Trafalgar has two different types of groups. 1. “Allocation Groups,” which are groups that sign up for pre-planned itineraries and 2. “Custom Groups” where the travel agent works with the groups specialist to plan a custom tour.

Apple Vacations has “Traditional Groups” and “Group Ease.” Traditional Groups are contracted affinity or speculative groups with more strict parameters around booking deadlines. Group Ease is a risk-free (and contract-free) alternative allows agents to use a promo code once they book a certain numbers of rooms through a vendor––even if they’re not traveling together (I go into more details about these kinds of groups here.) 

Before you start booking, you’ll want to acquaint yourself with your supplier’s group jargon to make sure you know what you’re getting into (as in, higher commissions, and more fun).

Qualifying Suppliers: How Can Suppliers Help You Market & Organize Your Trip?

A few expert agents talked about qualifying your groups in the second part of our series, but it’s also important to qualify your suppliers too. Beyond commission levels, which supplier is right for you? (You can read more on commissions here.)

If an advisor is just starting out booking groups, a popular route is to go with your old favorites––those with whom you already have a strong relationship.

Beyond making sure you qualify your group to ensure it’s a good fit for their needs in general, here are 5 things to consider when making a shortlist of suppliers for you group:

1. what marketing and & invoicing support do they provide?

Suppliers want you sell more of their product. How will they help you market your trip? Examples of collateral a supplier might provide are:

  1. Customized flyers for an itinerary
  2. An “interest” survey/form to help you qualify members for your group trip. (Psst, you can see other examples of travel agent forms here on our site)
  3. A landing page for your group on your website.
  4. Help with organizing an in-person social event or “group night”
  5. Invoicing materials to pass along to your clients
  6. Webinar presentations
  7. Provide demographic info to help target your audience

These are just a few examples of support that Trafalgar and Apple Vacations mentioned when I chatted with them.

2. what amenities/ tour conductor credits do they provide & what sales threshold do you need to meet?

Do you get a free space for every 6 room you book? 10? Do you get 5% off each booking if you book a certain number? Every supplier will offer different amenities for different kinds of groups if you reach different thresholds. These perks will depend on what kind of group you book and how many people are a part of that group.

You’ll need to understand this (inside and out) so you can let your clients––especially your pied piper––know what they can expect.

3. what are their rules and penalties?

If you book groups on the regular, you probably know this by heart. But you’ll want to make sure you’re crossing your t’s and dotting your i’s. It’s important to know things such as:

  1. How they “count” rooms to hold (is it number of rooms total, or an aggregate number of room nights?)
  2. How long can you hold rooms without names? How about without a deposit?
  3. When is final payment due?
  4. What is their cancellation policy?
  5. How much attrition do they allow?
  6. What are contingency plans if you fall short of the numbers outlines in your contract with the supplier?

Take a look at the marketing support, amenities and regulations. Do they work for you and what they need for your group?

A Baker's Dozen: Group Booking Tips from Suppliers

Okay so this is probably why you're here in the first place! . . . Tapping into the (great and infinite) wisdom of our suppliers. They understand group contracts inside and out. They know the challenges travel agents face booking groups. They want to set you up for success.

So here’s some advice from the supplier side of things:

1. if you're new to booking groups, start with affinity groups:

Mark Yacker, Trafalgar Travel: “The easiest groups are the ones that are pre-formed. They can look for affinity groups, like a church group or culinary school, or a group that’s interested in knitting. These groups are everywhere. Find these groups that are already formed, and (ideally) that already travel.”

"Find these groups that are already formed, and (ideally) that already travel.” – Mark Yacker, Trafalgar Travel

Richard Cartaciano, Trafalgar Travel: ”Senior citizen groups is huge group type for us. Baby boomer groups. If you do have agents who want to focus on building their own trip and promote that, there’s really great ways on how to promote it.” 

2. plan early

Michael Comeau, Rocky Mountaineer Travel: “. . . Always do some type of presentation (live or webinar, which our team is prepared to do). Know your target audience: we can help our trade partners with info on demographic data that will streamline to target the right group audience.”

3. no such thing as a stupid question:

Gina West, Apple Vacations: "I can’t stress enough, don’t be afraid to ask questions. [Agents are] almost a little embarrassed to ask a question, and we’d rather them ask as many questions so they fully understand than not ask and make a mistake later. "

4. keep a paper trail

Gina West, Apple Vacations: "When you’re new, make sure you’re super organized and keep super good records. Every communication you have with the tour operator you work with has be in writing, has to be in email . . . there has to be a paper trail. Anytime you’re requesting a quote or change to the group, make sure you’re keeping really good notes and staying organized."

"Anytime you’re requesting a quote or change to the group, make sure you’re keeping really good notes and staying organized." – Gina West, Apple Vacations

5. know your destinations and its seasonal demand

Michael Comeau, Rocky Mountaineer: “Demand for the Canadian Rockies is very high, thus early planning is almost a necessity for the best results and hotel confirmations. Expect that the premium hotels in the Rockies will take longer to confirm if a group is looking for the luxury resorts. Date flexibility and seasonal demand will also impact the process, so consulting with our experienced sales team will go a long way!”

6. Create a contract with your client/ group:

Gina West, Apple Vacations: “Make sure the agent has their own written contract with the customer. Our written contract is with the agent, so if something happens, they’re on the hook.

[Agents] need to have a contract that clearly states ‘these are your responsibilities, these are my responsibilities.’ All questions have to come to the agent through the group leader. That’s part of the group leader’s responsibility . . . and you have to tell them what’s in it for them. What number the group needs to produce to get comps and extra perks.

Have everything in writing to protect yourself.” 

7. Know your group inside and out before booking:

Mark Yacker, Trafalgar Travel: “What are their interests beyond the destination? What are they looking for? Are they into food and wine? Architecture? Things like that. To refine it a lot more, we’d ask for a per person budget (minus airfare), and number of passenger they’re expecting. We’ll provide price brackets. The date range. Is it flexible? We can get an idea of better availability.

We’ve developed a form that can help them to collect this information. They can help them through the process.”

8. Triple check your math to avoid penalties:

Gina West, Apple Vacations: “ . . . how do you define the space that you’re holding? That’s become a really critical thing. It used to be defined as number of rooms. But hotels now are basing it on number of room nights, so if you have 30 rooms for 7 nights, you have 210 room nights. So you do the math and have to be really careful with that.

You probably only need to hold 3 or 4 rooms for 7 nights, and now they’re on the hook for 210 room nights. When you’re close to [the deadline to cancel without penalty], see who’s actually booking 7 nights and reduce the nights per how many are actually booking.

I just want to press upon agents that there are details like that. When you get into those destinations weddings, that’s often when you have people staying for different durations. When an agent talks to groups department, have them ask how they can avoid penalties.”

9. Understand your contract with vendors:

Michael Comeau, Rocky Mountaineer: "We have terms that allow for some time to promote without an up-front deposit. this timeline is dependent upon WHEN the group is contracted. When the date of deposit is close, we consult with our partners to determine how much space will be held and deposited on. If an agent doesn’t fulfill the contract, the deposits are non-refundable."

" When the date of deposit is close, we consult with our partners to determine how much space will be held ... If an agent doesn’t fulfill the contract, the deposits are non-refundable." – Michael Comeau, Rocky Mountaineer

10. Use Suppliers’ tools to help market your trip:

Mark Yacker, Trafalgar Travel: “. . . We create itinerary fliers that [agents] can pass out to their travelers, or create landing pages with all the trip details they can easily email out to them."

Richard Cartaciano, Trafalgar Travel: “Trafalgar has a team of 17 sales managers across the country and they are constantly working with ICs to help promote these groups—build out landing pages or fliers. The district sales managers will help them organize a group night.”

11. Give yourself a buffer when setting deadlines with your clients:

Gina West, Apple Vacations: “We have to have the names by 70 days prior travel. Final payment is due 61 days before travel. When agents are communicating those dates to clients, they should probably pad that. But those are the critical dates they put in the contract (we pad it)”

12. What is your contingency plan?

Mark Yacker, Trafalgar Travel:“If the custom group doesn’t fill their spaces, we’d look for a similar trip and offer to move passenger to that trip. That’s a safety net. [Agents could also] schedule the departure on days [Trafalgar] already has a scheduled trip as a back-up.  If agents are worried about filling space, taking an allocation of seats on a scheduled departure may be the best bet – seats can be released with no penalty up to 120 days prior to departure”

13. Sell travel insurance (and make sure the timing is right).

Gina West, Apple Vacations: “I’ve been trying to coach agents be really smart about when they sell travel insurance . . . Once the names have been entered into the group record, the clock starts ticking — there is only a 7 day window (the day the names are entered into the record is “Day #1”) to add the travel insurance for that passenger. Most groups can cancel 120 days without risk, so there’s really no reason to enter names until you’re closer to risk period. If they would happen to cancel outside the 120 days, they wouldn’t get the insurance premium back.

If the names have been entered into the record and travel insurance was not purchased within that 7 day window, the tour operator’s [travel insurance] can’t be added.  Since the group is contracted, the space is securely held so there is no sense of urgency to add the names to the record until it gets closer to the date when cancellation penalties will kick in . . . Insurance premiums are never refundable. . . It’s all about communication. If they communicate to the group leader that they’re going to collect all the info but not enter it until a later date, you can explain it’s for their protection.” 

Help Keep Your Group Organized (a Cheatsheet)

Let's face it, booking groups can be an organizational nightmare. But it doesn't have to be. Here's a resource that make your group booking a little less overwhelming, HAR's "Your Group At a Glance" cheatsheet. It's broken down into 3 parts and will help you channel your inner administrative assistant and get that group organized. Without further ado:

Part 1: Things to Know Before You Call for a Group Quote

As Gina said above, she’d rather than travel agents ask questions than risk making a mistake. That said ( . . . and now this is me talking, not Gina), you also want to make sure you do as much legwork as possible before asking a supplier for a group quote! It's a list of info you'll want to have handy for your group rep. Details such room categories, group type and more (heck, I can't give away all my secrets!)

But I didn't come up with this list by myself. Not by a long shot. You have Gina West of Apple Vacations to thank for this piece of wisdom!

Part 2: Questions You Can Ask a Supplier

You know how it is: you get off the phone with someone and then instantly think of 3 million things you forgot to ask them. ARGH! Part 2 is a simple table that will help you track your questions and answers from suppliers. It's to make sure you don't forget to ask your burning question.

On the cheatsheet table, I warmed you up with a few questions inspired by the suppliers' wisdom—details like, "How do you count space?", or "How much attrition do you allow?" But I also provided some space for you to write in your own questions.

You can jot down notes in the table to track the details!

Part 3: Deadline Tracker

There’s a lot of details and info rolling around in your big ‘ol travel-planning brain. Part 3 is a table to help you manage the deadlines that are in the contract with your supplier. You’ll be able to write in deadlines for different aspects of booking your trip, including entering the manifest, cancellation deadlines etc.

Not only that, but there’s also a column to enter in deadlines for your clients as well. This will be dates you give to your clients as a deadline. (As Gina said earlier, you’ll want to pad it for your clients so you have plenty of time to organize and submit their info once you get it.)

You're Ready to Gather Your Gaggle and Send them Off (and Special Thank Yous)!

This is your official shortcut to booking groups! Thank you (thank you thank you thank you) to the suppliers who participated in this article—Mark Yacker and Richard Cartaciano of Trafalgar, Gina West of Apple Vacations (and special shoutout for letting me use her flyer to help create our cheatsheet), and Michael Comeau of Rocky Mountaineer. They're whizzes.

And thanks to them, you now have a few shortcuts (or brush-ups) on your group booking knowledge. Do you have other tips you don't see here? Strut your stuff in the comments below (and by stuff mean knowledge—we're a PG site).

About the Author
Mary Stein - Host Agency Reviews

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.