Specialization as a Key to Success: Travel Weekly

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Distinguish yourself as an expert and increase your business with strategic travel specialties.

American composer Stephen Sondheim once wrote a song called “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” for the Broadway musical Gypsy. The business he described, of course, was a far cry from anything in the travel industry. But the message, in its most basic form, holds true for travel advisors today. To put it simply: Choosing a specialty can help you attract more business.   

“Specialization is important for a travel advisor to help make you stand out in a crowd and reduce your competition in the market today,” says Ann Frischmann, owner of Travel Design by Ann in Victoria, Minnesota. “Whether it is a specific vertical like luxury, or even more granular like faith-based groups or gluten-free travel, your marketing efforts become simpler—and clients will have an easier time finding you.”

Sarah Nelson, vice president of A World of Travel in Gilbert, Arizona, says that travel advisors owe it to themselves to choose an area of focus. “Without specializing, I believe advisors are doing both themselves and their clients a disservice,” she says. “While it’s great to generalize and know a bit of everything, travelers utilize a travel advisor because we know things the traveler doesn’t. And when we know a particular destination or type of travel really well, we ensure that travelers get the best experience, every time.”

Using the services of a specialized travel advisor also provides welcome relief for travelers who are tired of wading through a never-ending stream of online information, according to Ann Valley, vacation travel consultant at Bayside Travel in Bayside, Wisconsin. “There are so many resources available to the public now, it tends to become confusing and overwhelming for an individual to handle,” she explains. “For those of us in the industry, we have to know a little bit about a lot, but we can truly stand out if we are able to specialize in one area.”

Finding Your Niche
Whether it’s a destination, a category of travel or a type of traveler, the list of possible specialties is seemingly endless. To narrow down the choices and find the best fit for success, Frischmann says that following your passions is the way to go.  “In my years of traveling before I was a travel advisor, I found my passion to be the South Pacific region,” she says. “Having first-hand knowledge and experience of a particular destination gives my clients the assurance that they will have the best trip possible.”

Nelson’s agency, A World of Travel, which is a part of Travel Leaders Network, encourages staff members to explore possibilities based on their personal experience and preferences. “All of our travel advisors have different specialties,” she explains. “That way we can offer the most to our clients. Our advisors pick their specialty based on what excites them and makes them the happiest, because that love and excitement is easily seen by travelers. When you have a passion for a destination, the client realizes it and that translates to more business for us, especially since the bulk of our business comes from repeat clients and referrals.”

When scanning the marketplace for lucrative specialties, Frischmann has found that her own clients can also be a valuable source of ideas. “My clients constantly influence my ability to see possibilities for new niches and specialties in travel,” she says. “From initial consultations to conversations when they return from a trip, hearing their stories of challenges they have will flip that switch in my head to think of how we can design a vacation that helps them, and others, overcome those struggles.”

That’s how Frischmann came to realize the need for expert travel advisors who can guide clients with food challenges. “I have a client who, during our first conversation, spoke of their struggle with having dietary restrictions and their fear of going someplace new and possibly getting sick,” Frischmann recalls. “When I investigated further, I found there is an entire market of people who don’t travel, for fear of being exposed to gluten, nuts, dairy, etc. I now work with specific suppliers that have culinary specialists on staff, so we can advise them of each person’s individual needs prior to arriving, as well as be available during their stay for questions. This ensures my clients won’t have any issues, so they can relax and enjoy their vacation. Advising this client has opened a whole new niche of specialization for me, allowing me to serve many others with dietary restrictions.”

Showing What’s Special
Once they’ve identified an area of specialty, travel advisors need to not just build expertise but publicize what makes their services different. Frischmann, for example, has completed certification courses as a leisure travel specialist, luxury travel specialist, active and adventure specialist, and honeymoon and destination wedding specialist, all through Travel Leaders Network. 

“In addition, through tourism boards, I have been able to complete specialists’ programs for my niche of South Pacific travel,” she adds. “I am an Aussie Premier with Tourism Australia, a 100% Pure New Zealand Gold Specialist with Tourism New Zealand, a Maitai Specialist with Tourism Fiji and working on the final piece of my Tiare certification with Tourism Tahiti.”

In addition to highlighting her specialties on her own website, Frischmann publicizes her specialties through Travel Leaders Network’s Agent Profiler program. “I’m able to customize my profile for my specific certifications and specializations, to help me stand out among my peers,” she says. “I’m able to share my own photos from trips and write an experiential post to share some thoughts about my journey, which helps my passion shine through.”

For Valley, success has come from combining specializations, based on certifications she and her colleagues have received. “One of our agency goals for both last year and this year is to promote more group business in leisure travel,” she says. “My focus has been incorporating my skills and expertise from my leisure travel certification with the group travel certification. Both programs are offered by Travel Leaders Network.”

To get the word out about what she does, Valley works her client database. “I promote myself to potential groups as a resource to handle every component of trip planning,” she says. “We have an existing base of group customers that do repeat business every year. My challenge has been to put together speculative group travel based on the current trends and interests in the community. I try to promote a trip that will be in demand and I escort the group.”

Showcasing your own personal experiences goes a long way toward establishing a leadership role in your specialty, according to Frischmann. “I try to create aspirational content and messaging, so when clients see me experiencing the things they want to do, it makes it relatable, versus stock models frolicking on the beach or seeing some iconic site,” she says. “My messaging throughout my website, my social media channels and even down to my business cards is customized to include my personal experiences, highlighting my expertise.”

Frischmann also relies on other organizations to get the word out. “I utilize my partnerships with various tourism boards,” she says. “Being a 100% Pure New Zealand Gold Specialist with Tourism New Zealand and an Aussie Premier Specialist with Tourism Australia, I’m able to be featured on their respective websites and take advantage of their site traffic and active shoppers who are looking for vacations in these destinations. The number of leads I get from these partners is a valuable part of my business.”

Nelson encourages her team to share their personal interests and excitement with clients. “One of our advisors went to Africa for a work trip and fell in love,” she says. “She communicates her love of Africa to every client she meets, online and in every email she sends. She has returned to Africa on personal vacations now, and she has grown our Africa business tremendously.”

The results are indeed impressive, according to Nelson. “We used to have a few Africa bookings a year,” she says. “Now our Africa Specialist closes a couple of Africa trips a month. Seeing as she also has another specialty that she focuses on, we are more than proud of her. Our other advisors have seen similar growth in their chosen areas.”

Revving Up Referrals
Regardless of the market segment, word of mouth is crucial for attracting new clients and building business. And with specialization, those referrals can be even more important since they attract a more targeted clientele that’s even more in need of a knowledgeable professional. 

“We depend on referrals for a lot of our growth,” Valley says. “Many times when we handle a group, the individual participants will come to us for their personal travel needs. I’ve also noticed that often group members will recruit from within to encourage joining the group.”

Frischmann notes that referrals sometimes come from unexpected places, sometimes well beyond the expected friends, family members and business associates. “Specialization has been key to securing new clients,” she says. “When my clients return from a trip and I’ve done my job right, they will have had a memorable journey and want to tell their friends about it, whether in the office, on social media or at dinner parties. I had one client who was at the gym and he overheard a woman say she always wanted to go to Australia but had no clue where to even start. He struck up a conversation with her and told her he had just gotten back, had an amazing time and had a travel advisor that specialized in custom designed experiences—he gave her my contact information and we’ve since connected.”

Staying Fresh
It doesn’t matter how many referrals you get today if you’re not staying current about what you’re selling. To ensure success in specialization, travel advisors need to stay on top of the latest trends and opportunities within their niche. 

“With the ever-changing travel landscape, it is key for a travel advisor to keep continually up-to-date on what’s new in the destination, what new partners are coming online and what new offerings current partners have,” says Frischmann. “I’m continually participating in webinars, in-person trainings, workshops, online re-certification courses and visiting destinations through familiarization programs to ensure I know what the latest and greatest is for my clients.”

Valley also makes education a priority. “I’m constantly involved in ongoing training via webinars, seminars and online workshops,” she says. “As a member of Travel Leaders Network, we have tremendous resources available to us. I am also a firm believer in experiencing firsthand what I want to promote, so I look forward to participating in familiarization trips.”