As many predicted when 2017 came to a close, 2018 was a banner year for retailers, with many seeing one of the best -- if not the best -- years in recent memory. Advance bookings for 2019 indicate another solid year ahead, but history and some recent uncertainty in financial markets indicate that the good times won't roll forever and that now might be the time to start future-proofing agencies in anticipation of coming dips in travel.
"We remain on track to pay record overrides to our Virtuoso members for their production with our cruise and tour partners, so that's usually the sign of a great year for everybody," said David Kolner, senior vice president of global member partnerships at the consortium. "And I can also say '19 is looking in some cases better than '18, or in the same neighborhood."
Virtuoso's solid 2018 was mirrored by many others in the industry. Libbie Rice, co-president of Ensemble Travel Group, echoed Kolner's enthusiasm about 2019, a year where there's a lot of capacity to fill; Rice pointed to the cruise industry, where more and bigger ships continue to come online.
"We believe we're outpacing a lot of the capacity, so that's great," she said. "All indicators are strong."
At the MAST Travel Network, president and COO John Werner said he saw a little slowdown in the pace of growth in the latter half of the year, but that has been remedied by close-in bookings. In the coming 12 months, he said, it appears business will be up or on par with advanced bookings, but he is looking at certain economic indicators, like the wildly fluctuating stock market, as things that could lead travelers to adopt a wait-and-see attitude.
Kolner said, "It's never too early to be cautious about what the year looks like ahead and making sure that we're planning for all scenarios."
It's a sentiment that's shared by Scott Kertes, who goes by the moniker "Captain of the Ship" at his Garden City, N.Y.-based agency Vacations by Design. In fact, Kertes said he recommends evaluating one's business constantly to anticipate what the future might bring.
He urges his agents to stay on top of trends. For example, he said, he has incentivized his staff to learn all they can about Virgin Voyages. Richard Branson's first ship will undoubtedly come with a tremendous amount of buzz and attention.
"Get to know it, get comfortable with it, because people are going to be asking you about it," he said.
Agencies affiliated with Travelsavers and the Network of Entrepreneurs Selling Travel (NEST) have looked to niches to help keep business on the books when things are less than ideal economically, said Nicole Mazza, chief marketing officer for both organizations and the Affluent Traveler Collection.
"As we're looking toward '19, there are some concerns that are starting to peek their head when we look at the economy and the talk on the street today," she said. "That is the time we, historically in our agencies, have always looked at agencies really diving into different niche products, becoming more educated within a niche."
Janet Krebs, a partner in Nashville-based Belle Mead Vacations, said her agency focuses on deepening client and community relationships to keep business in good times and bad.
"The deeper the relationship you have with a client, the more likely you are to maintain that over the course of years and over their lifetime," Krebs said.
As a result of those deep relationships, which Krebs likened to those of a financial adviser or similar profession, Belle Mead has been booking travel for clients' children and grandchildren.
Kolner advised agents to future-proof their businesses with three key tips. Most importantly, he urged agents to focus on Luxury Travel, "because once clients go luxury, they usually don't go back, and now is a great time to get them really addicted to that experience."
He also advised agents to charge planning or consultation fees to help insulate against changes in commission structures or compensation.
Finally, Kolner said, now is the time to think about marketing, including social media. Experimentation with marketing is best done when times are good.
"Marketing becomes a really big consideration in any sort of economic downturn," he said. "It's an odd reverse scenario where you really do have to spend money" to reach clients.
For Cindy Brown, owner of Oui Travel in Batavia, Ill., it's a necessary risk to spend money on marketing when business is down or the economy is less than healthy.
"You've got to put yourself out there a little bit more," she said. "I think you've got to make your risk a little bit bigger. That's the way I approach things. I think it's easy to sit back when times are bad or you're struggling a little bit and say, 'Oh, I can't spend that,' but I think in the end it actually hurts you more than it helps you."
Kathryn Mazza-Burney, president of NEST and executive vice president of sales and service for Travelsavers, said she has noticed member agencies ramping up their marketing of late. They are also working more closely with supplier partners to hold things like cruise nights and travel shows to drum up business for 2019, she said.
Belle Mead's Krebs has been in the business since 1972. Despite what the future holds, she remains positive about her outlook for agents.
"I've seen a lot of changes and ups and downs over the years," she said. "However, one of the reasons that I became a leisure travel adviser to begin with still holds true: People will always take vacations. They may vary in size and scope, but people are always going to take vacations, and if you're there as a resource for them, you'll be the first person they contact."