Fitting staff training into a busy schedule is tough. Abigail Healy speaks to three agencies with a plan to integrate it into their business.
Setting a slot
At Haslemere Travel in Surrey, managing director Gemma Antrobus operates a slick system when it comes to supplier training.
“When I joined the agency 10 years ago, there was a slot on Thursday mornings from 9-10am when the office was closed to customers and we had a weekly catch-up,” she says.
While it was useful to have face-to-face time regularly, Antrobus explains that as a small company who shared a lot in the office day to day, they decided it wasn’t necessary on a weekly basis.
At the time, different supplier reps would pop in and they would approach their visits in different ways, some of which could be loud and disruptive.
“We sell luxury holidays and we’d have clients trying to spend tens of thousands of pounds and there would be a supplier shouting away behind them. The client experience always comes first,” Antrobus asserts.
This led to a decision to hand over three of the weekly staff meeting slots to suppliers.
“I’m now booking for February [next year],” she reveals. “We put an embargo on January but book all through December. I’ve only ever had one supplier be funny about it.”
She explains that during these slots, suppliers have the full attention of staff.
“The office is shut, the phones are off and it’s less about a presentation, more about a conversation. Sometimes for a tourist board, we’ll put out a big map on the floor and talk journeys and destinations, and the staff can ask all the questions they want.”
These sessions are for the agency’s in-branch staff, but they also host quarterly training sessions when all the homeworkers join too.
“These are just for our top suppliers – it’s usually a tour operator and a couple of hotels they sell. We close the office at 4.30pm and do a session until 6.30pm or 7pm and then go for dinner,” she says, adding that at Christmas, dinner is extra fun with secret Santa and other festive activities too.
Antrobus says she often finds the suppliers that come in to deliver training tend to get more focus in the following weeks.
“It’s those little nuggets of information you get, for example, if you hear about a water taxi between ‘A’ and ‘Z’ that runs at specific times each evening.”
And it’s rare that she says no to anyone approaching her for a slot.
“With tour operators, we rarely have anyone that contacts us that I don’t think we can work with. I just don’t know what they might have and with slots being planned six months ahead, I might need their product in six months’ time.”
Antrobus’s top three tips:
Put aside the time in a private setting – it’s important that suppliers who spend money putting people on the road for us get the respect they deserve in return.
Start with a slot once a month and approach your top suppliers to fill them – those you know will help you to make it work.
Be bold enough to say “this is my slot and this is how it works for my business” – 99.9% of people will understand that.
A digital approach has allowed Triangle Travel, a member of The Travel Network Group (TTNG), to deliver synchronised training across its four stores.
Sales consultant Tiffany Abbey coordinates the schedule for webinar-based training that takes place during a Wednesday morning slot from 9-9.30am.
“We’re in a market town that traditionally has half-days on Wednesdays, so lots of shops don’t open until 10am or so,” she explains. “We decided to close the offices across the whole company for half an hour, with no printers or phones and no customers. We have a GoToMeeting account, so we email a link to all the staff, including our homeworkers, and everyone logs on to watch it. It’s recorded too, so if anyone is away or sick they can watch it another time.”
Abbey explains that managing director Rob Kenton occasionally sends out email blasts letting suppliers know about the opportunity, and then requests start filtering in and she will schedule them into available slots.
“Also, when we’re out on ship visits or at events and we bump into reps, we’ll ask for a business card and email them to ask if they want to do a webinar for the staff,” she adds.
Knowing the slot is coming up helps with curating the training content too. “When we first started, we’d say, ‘You have 30 minutes to tell us about your company,’ but we would often get suppliers telling us the basics that we already knew. Now we focus on destinations or ask hotel groups to give us updates on what’s new in their resorts. For example, we did training with andBeyond and we asked them to focus on Namibia – they gave us so much useful information about things such as self-driving, flying times and visas. Cox & Kings also did a few where they talked about the tours they offer, and India as it was selling really well.”
Abbey gives a further example of Transylvanian Touring, a new member of TTNG. “Rob [Kenton] saw it was a new product we could sell and invited them to do a webinar. A short while later, a customer came in with a Romania enquiry and the booking was made with the company – we wouldn’t even have known about them if it wasn’t for the webinar.”
Abbey’s top three tips:
Try to allocate a time so there are no distractions.
Vary the programme so it’s not just the same thing every time, which can get boring.
Record webinars so staff can refer back to it if they miss the main showing.
Martin Skelly, managing director of Navan Travel in Ireland’s County Meath, is also a fan of webinar-based learning. However, rather than deliver the same training to all staff, each member of Skelly’s team takes responsibility for a specific type of holiday on a rotational basis. For example, one might focus on cruise, another on family holidays and so on.
“We change who is responsible for what every two months,” Skelly explains, adding that the agency has lots of staff with 15-17 years’ experience in travel, so it doesn’t make sense to limit them to one area permanently.
Yet it’s not just a case of staff watching their designated webinar and retaining that new-found knowledge for themselves.
“We have a formal briefing each week when the staff share the key information from the webinar they watched. The key points are then also sent round on an internal email,” Skelly says.
It’s a strategy that helps to maximise on time available during a busy week of selling.
“The challenge we have is that it is always a struggle to find time for formal training, but my view is that it is better to struggle and to prioritise than to abandon the notion,” he adds.
In addition to gaining more knowledge to boost their selling prowess, Skelly’s team sometimes piggyback offers off the webinars they watch, which they’ll send out to clients in newsletters.
A different tactic is used for new starters, however. Those with limited experience in the business select a new resort or product each week and a designated staff member who has been to the resort or destination or who sells it regularly will sit down and run them through what they need to know.
“The process takes six to seven months,” Skelly says.
Skelly’s top three tips:
Talk to colleagues and make a plan that’s not too detailed. It should be something practical where progress is measurable – and make sure you document it.
Be disciplined and stick to your plan.
Be prepared to make changes as required.