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Making the Connection

Fresh, qualified leads are important for any agent looking to maintain and grow their business. And in today’s world of constantly evolving technology, opportunities abound. But just showing up to the party and displaying your name online isn’t enough. Savvy travel agents understand the importance of mastering the ins and outs of online lead generation tools and strategic social media platforms in order to attract the best leads—and turn those leads into sales.

While the tools of the trade have changed—with the vast majority of lead-generation efforts now taking place online—the goals remain the same as always: provide an easy way for a potential client to connect with the right travel agent professional who can help turn their vacation dreams into reality.

While any motivated travel agent can control their own social media efforts, it’s a rare agency that has the wherewithal to sustain a full-fledged online lead-generation effort. That’s where host agencies, consortia, franchisers and other suppliers come in—they provide the technology, marketing, data and, most importantly, technical expertise to attract customers and then funnel those clients to the agent who’s the best match. Agents are competing for this business against sophisticated OTAs and can waste a lot of time and money unless they leverage the expertise of a sophisticated partner.

“A good 25 percent of our business comes from lead-generation,” says Sara Butruff, owner of Travel Leaders Apple Valley, in Apple Valley, Minn. “And it’s growing every year. I consider myself a small agency. There’s no way I could do any of this stuff on my own. The cost factor is too high.”

Muffett Grub, of Cruise Holidays in Knoxville, Tenn., also reports lead-related growth at her agency. “In the last two years, I have seen a big increase in lead-generation,” she says. “It’s primarily driven by the clients’ limited base of knowledge on a specific area of travel—they are looking for an agent to help with the ‘unknowns’ of travel. The advanced CRM programs, marketing tools and lead generation…are a big part of my success as an agent,” she says. “They provide far more opportunities than I could generate on my own.”

With online lead-generation, a travel agent’s first chance to make a good impression is his or her profile page. “We have one agent who is fantastic at building her profile,” says Butruff. “She typically comes up as the number-one Disney agent in Minnesota. So we have her help other agents in the office to build their profiles.”

What makes that agent’s profile so special? “She consistently goes in and updates it,” Butruff explains. “That shows Google the profile is super active, which is great for SEO. She has her business Facebook page, her business Instagram, her business Pinterest, and all that’s tied into her profile. So any time she adds anything to Facebook or anywhere else, it shows on her profile.”

Aaron Groves, branch manager at New Horizons Travel in Ankeny, Iowa, says that profile pages should provide clear reasons why travelers should trust a travel agent with their travel plans. “The ability to have a detailed profile online, where future clients can check out who you are and what you do, is a must,” he says. “Tell a little about yourself personally and who you are. Then tell why you specialize in that specific area. Also potential clients are impressed by credentials or specialist certificates that are important to your area of specialty.”

Grub agrees about including personal details when appropriate. “A great online profile should be both professional and personal,” she says. “I find that having personal information helps clients identify with me and makes me a ‘real person’ who can provide a personalized touch. And avoid being an expert at everything—narrow the profile to things that an agent does best and has a passion for.”

Indeed, specialization can go a long way when it comes to attracting leads. “That’s the biggest key to having good leads,” according to Butruff, who says she learned that lesson after her agency at first posted very general profiles. “We found that agents who have specialties, instead of generically saying ‘we sell everything,’ were getting much better leads. Agencies really do need to have a focus. We focus on five different areas, and we have specialists in those five areas.”

Even more important than the number of leads an agent attracts is whether those leads result in sales. “I am a firm believer in quality over quantity,” says Grub. “Quality leads from potential clients provide relevant information that can help close the sale. As an example, a high-quality lead from a potential client who wants to ‘go on a cruise to Alaska in June of next year and is interested in doing a cruise tour’ and has a specific budget in mind is more likely to end in a solid booking than a lead of a client who just has an email address and no relevant travel information.”

Butruff agrees that it’s in an agency’s best interest to focus on lead quality. “We’re super busy, so to respond to a quantity of leads takes more time. If we can just respond to quality ones, it’s a better turnaround. On average, each agent in my office gets two leads a day. Out of those two leads, if one closes by the end of the week, that’s anywhere from $500 to $1,000 in commission.”

Brian Hegarty, Vice President of Demand Marketing at Travel Leaders Group, notes the need for effective conversions to close the deal. “Quality is always more important than quantity in any lead generation,” he says, adding that there are “only so many hours in the day and days in the week. So agents need to make sure they are using their time effectively, and working with quality leads that will convert at a high rate.”  

To successfully turn an online lead into a sale, effective follow-up is necessary. “Number one is how quickly you respond,” says Butruff. “That’s the key. If you respond within 10 to 15 minutes of when you get the lead, then you have them still in their ‘moment’—and they’re willing to talk and type and give you more information. Number two is to really show passion. I don’t have any formal standard written response. I just respond as each request comes in—if it’s a river cruise, I’ll come back and say ‘I’m so excited that you’re looking at river cruising; I’ve been on four of them.’ I give them a quick little paragraph and ask when is a good time to talk more about this. Usually if I catch them within 10 minutes, it’s still on their mind and we can go from there.”

Grub agrees about the importance of speed. “A quick response is a must,” she says. “And I generally try to reach out to potential clients via phone first, as it is more personal than email. I follow up with email if I am not able to reach them via phone.”

Groves notes that how a potential client responds to your follow-up may provide clues about whether a lead is worth pursuing. “After the prompt response, it’s important to let them know you’re working on information for them,” he says. “Also, it’s important to ask a couple of questions to gain more information and to understand their interest level and urgency to book. If they don’t respond, then they likely are emailing a ton of agents.”

Beyond online lead-gen tools, successful travel agents are also committed to using their social media presence to attract additional leads. Here, too, a professional but engaging profile, including areas of specialization, is crucial in those first moments of attracting a client. However your client might have found you online—say, through a shared Facebook group, enticing re-tweet or hashtag on Instagram—you only have seconds to make a compelling first impression.

And while your professional social media does need to remain professional (no politics, kids, games, etc.), some of the most engaging posts do have a personal element. “Sometimes it seems like a simple picture of agents doing something locally or during travel gets more interest on social media, rather than just sending out messages about incredible resorts in Tahiti,” says Groves.

Butruff’s experiences are similar: “What we’ve been finding more this year is that our posts go crazy when an agent is in a destination and posting,” she says. “We get a lot more likes, a lot more people on our page. In the last year and a half or two, because of us posting like that, we’ve been getting more and more business from our social media.”

Grub follows a simple mantra when it comes to social media. “Share, share, share,” she says. “Show images of travel, personal travel experiences, client travel experiences, things you have done for clients that make their travel special, areas of expertise, client testimonials, information about travel in general. All of this will keep you top of mind when followers and friends find themselves in need of a travel expert.”

Grub also notes the value of promoted posts and ad campaigns, which play “an important role as part of the marketing process by keeping you in front of the clients, validating you as an agency and showing how an agent can enhance the travel experience with the services they provide.”

Travel Leaders Network Boosts Lead-Generation

With the right tools, online lead-generation can be an especially powerful way to boost profits. “I was just with an agent this week who told me every new client she has added this year has come from our Agent Profiler lead- generation program,” says Brian Hegarty, Vice President of Demand Marketing at Travel Leaders Group. “We have other agents in our network who have optimized their profiles and literally get 400-plus leads a year—that’s more than one a day—and they convert 40 to 50 percent of the leads that they get. That’s almost $1 million in sales for one agent, just from online leads from Agent Profiler.”

Indeed, Hegarty describes the Travel Leaders Agent Profiler as a key tool in the company’s portfolio of offerings for member agencies. “Evolution is a great word for the journey we’ve been on with TravelLeaders.com and Agent Profiler,” he says. “A key point for us came a few years ago when we determined that our role in the online space was not to sell travel, but to sell travel agents. After we made that pivot, and started to focus on the unique attributes of thousands of individual agents in our network, we not only experienced an increase in the number of leads but, more importantly, the quality of leads greatly improved.”

Agent Profiler is populated with unique, agent-generated content, customized to fit agent specialties. “By focusing on the expertise of each agent, we can match up the best agent with what the customer needs,” says Hegarty. “Everybody wins.”

“We’ve partnered with one of the very top Search Engine Optimization (SEO) firms, which handles the complex science side of the equation,” he continues. “They’ve helped us get to the point where we are generating over 100,000 leads a year to our member agents.”

Travel Leaders is also banking on the lead-generating potential of the recently re-launched website for Vacation.com. “The goal of Vacation is to expand our pool of potential customers by attracting prospects who are not even looking for a travel agent,” Hegarty explains. “We are working with a beta group of agents now and will expand participation across member agencies in fall 2017.”

For more information on opportunities with Travel Leaders Network, visit TravelLeadersNetwork.com.

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