The pandemic has wreaked havoc on the industry, but some luxury travel agents have used the situation to flip their thinking, try new things and find ways to stay positive and keep clients excited
Travel planning may have been minimal in the past year, frustratingly replaced with endless admin around rebooks and refunds, but some luxury agents vowed to focus on positive projects, shift marketing ideas and look to strategic plans that could ensure they keep their business – and sanity – alive.
From ensuring Instagram accounts were on-point, attractive and engaging, to developing new CRM systems, running virtual events for clients with key suppliers, or launching an entirely new business model, five agents share how they have kept busy, stayed focused and tried to develop their brands in these most testing of times.
The founder of this agency turned to Instagram to keep clients engaged, creating unique targeted posts and running campaigns – and through her efforts she has managed to grow followers for her @wanderlux.planner account by more than 1,000 in the last six months.
“That’s been a huge success in my eyes,” she says. “I use templates through apps such as Canva and Unfold that make the content and stories more engaging. Most of the inspirational travel content I have been using comes either from my own library of pictures, or from suppliers, including videos.”
Puttock says she also leveraged existing partnerships for campaigns such as Wellness Raffle – with Dorchester Collection – and the Win my Wedding honeymoon giveaway with Lux Resorts and Mauritours.
“Win my Wedding was set up by hospitality industry colleagues early on in the crisis when lots of events started being cancelled, with 32 suppliers donating a wedding service, such as photography, wedding dress, flowers, DJ, and so on – Wanderlux was invited to take part and we were thrilled to help, organising a prize of six nights half-board in Mauritius for a honeymoon,” she explains.
With a growth in domestic travel last year – a trend which could well continue this year too – Puttock says she sought to leverage relationships with GP Associates, SLH and Mr & Mrs Smith to ensure she had lots of options to offer clients in the UK.
“Before Covid-19 hit, Wanderlux never did any domestic travel, so it’s been really lovely connecting with beautiful properties right on our doorstep while borders have been closed, and those partners are particularly appealing for my clients,” she says.
She has also become a Traveller Made agency, which she says was “a fantastic introduction to new suppliers”. “Over the year, I also made sure we were IATA registered, became part of Leading Hotels of the World’s Very Important Travel Agents club, and also SLH’s withIN programme,” she adds.
With sustainability rising higher on people’s agenda, Wanderlux also made a point of becoming one of the first wave of agents to sign up for membership of the Conscious Travel Foundation. The new collective was established during the pandemic with an aim of championing the positive impact of the travel industry on global communities, cultures, wildlife and habitats, raising funds for grass-roots charities and high-impact projects around the world.
“The webinars have just started, but it is a group of travel fanatics banding together to try and brainstorm better travel practices moving forward,” she says.
The managing director of this Wimbledon-based business has also decided to introduce greater consideration around sustainability, galvanised by the pandemic and shifting attitudes, including his own.
Ian Weir (pictured above, bottom left), a new member of the team under the agency’s blossoming Associates initiative and another pandemic project, approached Swords and asked “what are we doing as a business to be more sustainable, and how are we educating our clients on how they could also do the same, and offset emissions”?
“My answer was simple – ‘we’re not doing enough’, but let’s look at how we can change it,” says Swords (pictured above, top right). “I have been conscious myself that we needed to do something for a while.”
A donation per booking will be contributed to a project every year and Mark and his husband and business partner Stuart will pay to offset their own travel when the time comes, with the team of associates asked to suggest ideas on how they and the business can think more sustainably. “We’re also keen to create and compile a preferred sustainable partner list that can help us and our clients make greener choices,” says Mark.
Swords Travel also ended up moving to an entirely new business model as a result of the crisis – something Mark says he probably wouldn’t have thought of doing otherwise. The Swords Travel Associates initiative allows for homeworkers to plug into all the admin, marketing and creative support of HQ, with seven people now signed up, with Swords waiving joining and admin fees initially.
The Swords have also used quieter times this year as an opportunity to refresh their CRM and back office systems, and focus on website updates and social media strategy.
They have also been running destination webinars to give clients inspiration, which have resulted in some healthy bookings.
“We never stopped marketing and remained proactive throughout – I noticed lots of companies just stopped posting things and I think that gives the impression you have given up,” he says. “We plan our marketing every Tuesday and schedule content for the week ahead, bearing in mind relevant topics and destinations. We’ve always been proactive within ‘mum’s groups’ on social media, and secured two bookings recently based on one of my Maldives posts. It just shows people always have you in the back of their mind.”
Mark has also looked into the possibility of LinkedIn, to good effect. “We’d never used it much before, but when everyone started talking about ‘workcations’ we posted a few things there promoting various packages, and as it’s more of a platform for work, we got a one-month booking to Ritz-Carlton Abama for a family of four. I was shocked, but it shows the power of talking about certain products on different social channels.”
Some agents have used this strange time to get stuck into a new project, including Charlie Craig, founder of Paper Plane Travel, who launched her new brand Tide, initially specialising in the Maldives.
“Tide was born out of the idea to build the “fly and flop” side of my business, as Paper Plane has always focused on tailor made itineraries,” she says. “I don’t want to change that, but I did want to showcase my knowledge on the Maldives without totally overtaking Paper Plane’s core ethos.”
Working with specialist Indian Ocean DMC Hummingbird, Craig has handpicked 40 resorts in the Maldives to focus on for Tide, and also managed to organise a fam trip for herself to the destination in December.
“That was obviously very helpful in bringing all this together, and I feel fortunate I managed to make that work in the time frame [between lockdowns]. Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to see more than 20 of the hotels I am focusing and I’m combining that with a strong belief that you need to match clients to their perfect hotel,” she says. “I am also trying to steer people away from the common misconception that the Maldives is for only for honeymoons and special occasions.”
She says that Tide is a work in progress, but that it’s been great to have something to sink her teeth into. “The plan is to build up with further destinations but for the time being, it’ll be just be the Maldives.”
This couple run Cartology here in the UK, but Huxter’s roots are in South Africa, where his co-founder and mother still lives, and they have an office.
The couple travelled back there last year – soon into the trip however, news hit of the new variant of the virus, restrictions came into force, including the current two-week hotel quarantine requirement here, leaving them little choice but to stay. They are at least trying to see the positive side of being 'stuck' in South Africa, and promoting content from some of their experiences where possible.
“We are working from home in the Cape Winelands of South Africa for the foreseeable future and continuing to show what life is like here and provide travel inspiration,” says Boate.
But the couple had already been trying to keep the travel inspiration flowing last year too, where possible.
“We felt it was important for us to keep travelling over the past 12 months to be able to show to our clients and potential clients what travel and experiences are like in the current environment. For example we went to Kenya in August for the Great Migration, Spain in September, and Tanzania in November,” she adds. “We embraced Instagram’s Reels, alongside Facebook and increasingly LinkedIn to keep people updated as to what the situation was on the ground, and to show that safari and other adventures were still possible.”
The next step will be working on a brief video of their African safari adventures. “We will use the video to launch a new Africa focused product to clients shortly, get the content and changes on the website and via social media outlets, and tie it into a piece on sustainable safaris we were featured in for a recent issue of Virtuoso Life.”
They have also taken the time to “completely rip up processes and start with a blank sheet of paper to re-imagine what our client experience is like”. This includes an overhaul and implementation of a new CRM function with clients now tagged by home country, types of trips and destinations they are interested which will also make future newsletters very targeted.
Being able to roll this out will also help the business redevelop its “independent consultant”, or homeworker programme, which currently numbers nine ICs spread over the UK, US and Argentina.
“Our focus is not to have a huge number of them – we would rather 20-25 really high performing ones that we have very close relationships with and can personally invest a lot of our time and effort into their businesses,” says Boate. “The work we have been able to do means we now have complete online training, help, support and redone processes for them. This last piece has been our biggest accomplishment and one we feel will really accelerate our ICs’ business going forward.”
She adds that one other step they undertook during the crisis was setting up a network of other luxury agents to support each other: “We have regular catch ups to share information, issues and just have some other agents to talk to in the tough times.”
Emma Frearson (pictured, centre at the TTG Luxury Travel Awards) has been keeping her optimism up and her eye on future goals.
“I’m opening a luxury cabin in my garden that I’ll use as an office and also invite clients to, when face-to-face meetings are allowed again,” she says. “I’ve also been discussing this with partners I have a particularly good relationship with, such as Carrier, to see how they can help when it happens – in the mean time, I’ve been using their marketing assets across social media.”
She says planning ahead has been a big part of this time for her: “I’ve had chance to think how to push the business forward after all of this. I’ve also been discussing post-Covid ideas of interacting with suppliers and my clients, such as holding an event at my home, or arranging dinners with clients.”
In the mean time, until she can see clients in person, there have been online events, with just her and clients, and also with suppliers such as Classic Collection and Uniworld. “This has been fabulous, and my clients have loved having insight into products and hotels and giving them something different to think about. The online events have also helped me keep in touch and keep my relationship going with clients, and Zoom calls have become part of my everyday life with clients.”
She adds it’s been important to stay in touch with clients in different ways, and whatever is the best method for each of them, whether regular email updates, WhatsApp chats with regular clients, or social media posts on what she is up to. “I have definitely found much more social media interaction during lockdown, and there’s also a wealth of deals and social media activity provided by head office which have been hugely beneficial to me,” she says.
She says she has also tried to think of thoughtful ways to keep in touch with clients who have had holidays cancelled. “I managed to source two limited edition Hard Rock pin badges for the children of my clients, as they collect these from all over the world, and hand delivered the badges with a note,” she says.
And as she says, there have been some positives to this situation. “I think, if you take this opportunity now to improve how you work, it will pay off in the long run. I also think it has bought the industry closer together and the relationships between suppliers and agents have been strengthened further. We have had to take this very difficult time and use it to think how we can move forward.”
For more luxury travel inspiration, hear from seven luxury agents on what they've learned during the crisis, and their top travel tips and favourite hotels.