What a strange holiday season this has been. I have to be honest with you, I’m not feeling it.
More than 300,000 Americans have died due to Coronavirus and the number of daily new COVID-19 cases are rising at an alarming rate. Over the weekend, European countries started to announce restrictions on U.K. travelers to protect themselves from the next mutation taking hold in England.
Whenever I’ve gone through troubling times like these in my life, I’ve found two things help me get through. One is to focus on my strengths, and the things that I can control. (Hence the name of this column.)
The second thing I focus on is trying to be of service to others. Helping other people is a source of endorphins for me. I have heard from friends and colleagues that they too experience this natural high, by volunteering for organizations, calling a friend who is down, donating to a charity, etc.
That’s why two weeks ago I posted on Facebook about my Dec. 8, column, “Let’s Not Lose This Opportunity to Change.” My post received dozens of responses from veteran travel professionals agreeing that this current “pause” is the right time for us to think about how we can make improvements to the way we all do business.
A group of these individuals got together with me on a private Zoom meeting last Wednesday night to gather ideas, catalogue them, and start to think about what kind of structure would be needed to introduce and sustain change. What I didn’t expect was the direction the conversation would take, and the kind of changes that were on the minds of some of my fellow travel industry colleagues.
Looking Outside In
I thought we would be discussing issues like improving how travel advisors are paid, making travel training materials better, producing more productive conferences, etc. Nope. Right out of the box, several attendees passionately spoke about how they want to see travel reemerge from COVID with a renewed focus on connecting travelers to the people and places they visit, in a more powerful way.
After the call, I contacted three of the meeting attendees, as well as my friend Roslyn Parker, to explore this more deeply. What I found were a group of people who understand the greater meaning of COVID-19, and how the way out for many of us is about focusing on what we can give to the future of travel, versus worrying over what we will receive when travel returns.
We all want to see a sustainable global movement to leverage tourism and the dollars it brings to local economies. We’re thinking travel advisors can take a key leadership role in this movement because who else is better prepared to market truly immersive, custom experiences and convince travelers of the power this kind of travel can have on all of us?
Over the last few years, our industry has tried to hide the lack of progress behind amorphous sales phrases like “sustainable” and “experiential” travel. For the most part, we believe this has been feel good window dressing.
“Big tourism is not really helping the little people,” said Parker, CEO at Affinity Travel Group, and a social causes tourism advocate. “In fact, it’s overwhelming at times for many of the communities it encourages us to visit.”
Parker and I discussed how conventional tours, cruise excursions, etc., stifle the real potential of tourism economic development. Mass tours often prevent the deep human connections that could help the world through trying times, like global pandemics.
“The path to responsible, conscious travel has a long way to go,” said Jackie Williams, owner of NuVibe Travel Experiences. She spoke about how the current shared definition of sustainable travel “distorts the message being communicated to the travel advisor community and onto our clients.”
For Williams, sustainable tourism is built on three pillars: supporting local economies, protecting the environment, and helping local communities protect their indigenous culture collectively, not independently.
She believes that too many travel partners have yet to incorporate those three pillars into their operations and marketing, reducing adoption of sustainable travel initiatives “to a slow crawl.”
Where do Advisors Start?
To unleash this potential, advisors must first re-evaluate why they are in this industry, “assess our own values, and find our voice – our medium to communicate our values,” Williams said.
“We must lead by example and educate ourselves on destinations and opportunities to support local communities, the environment, and understand how we can contribute to local economies that depend on tourism — and strategically partner to support these initiatives.”
Angie Drake, co-founder of Not Your Average American and a sustainable tourism consultant, pointed to companies like Patagonia and G Adventures, who are trying to strike a balance between profits and purpose so that they can sustain change over time.
“More and more companies are adopting the idea that when we’re traveling internationally, and connecting developed nations with developing nations, everyone benefits equally from the exchange,” Drake said. Advisors need to seek these companies out and support them, she said.
Even conventional tour companies, with their “five destinations in seven days” itineraries can play a part, said Julia Browne, founder of Montreal-based Walking the Spirit Tours.
“People who take group tours, where they are visiting one stop after another, should be encouraged to go home and explore deeper about the destination,” she said. “We want our clients’ first trip to live on within them, so that they want to come back a second time to see more and feel more.”
Finding Ideal Clients; Creating New Ones
After educating yourself, Williams suggests, qualify sales prospects open to this approach to travel, and strategically partner with suppliers who share the same vision.
Drake is focused on this kind of tourism to Ecuador, and believes that travel advisors engaged in group tours could have a dramatic positive impact if they focus on consumers looking for experiences that take them deeper into a country’s natural appeal, bring them more up close to indigenous populations, and help build lasting personal bonds.
For example, her company creates itineraries for people who belong to organizations like the Audubon Society and the Sierra Club. “This is the kind of thing we can replicate for other types of affinity groups, like kayakers or hikers,” she said.
Making a difference will require diligence and effort, Williams said. “It’s an area I’m working hard to balance as well. But with the commitment to elevate all sectors that make tourism possible (including the local people of our most desired destinations), I believe we can inspire change and impact lasting and sustainable change!”
Parker and Williams believe travel advisors also may find new revenue streams serving clients who are open to taking extended “workcations.” Upwork, a freelance economy online platform, believes that one in four Americans will be working remotely in 2021. By 2025, 36.2 million Americans will be working remotely, up 87% from pre-pandemic levels.
An individual willing to live and work in another country for weeks at a time can deliver tremendous local benefits to those communities, and get to know its residents. “They’ll be purchasing food at the local markets and dining locally. They’ll be supporting local retailers,” Parker said.
The Gift that Gives Back
I am so sorry that we are all going through such difficult times. I know the future seems uncertain in many ways right now. Give yourself a gift. Start thinking about how you can give back to the communities you have visited, and send your clients to. Just start with one or two.
Think about the people and places in these destinations that get less of the tourism traffic than they otherwise might earn. What if someone like you could figure out a way to send more of your clients there? Who would you partner with? How would you market these experiences? Who in your current client base might be interested? Then set about building a plan.
“People naturally want to connect at a deeper level,” Browne said. “They want to be shaken up. It’s just up to us to help show them how.”
“Am I hopeful for change? Of course, I am,” Williams said. “I believe travel is what unites humanity and is the ultimate teacher of mankind. I believe in limitless possibilities and that the good of human nature will prevail.”
Parker is optimistic as well. She feels it is human nature to favor giving over receiving. “I have been doing this for about ten years. A lot of people still don’t get it. But deep down inside, people know that the best way to feel good is to do good.”
Richard D’Ambrosio is a master storyteller who, for more than 30 years, has helped leading brands like American Express, Virgin Atlantic Airways, the Family Travel Association (FTA), and Thomas Cook Travel tell their stories to their customers, the media, and employees. A professional business coach and content marketing consultant with his own firm, Travel Business Mastermind, Richard most recently has worked with The Travel Institute, Flight Centre USA and a variety of host agencies and tour companies, helping entrepreneurs refine their brands and sharpen their sales and marketing skills. Richard writes regularly about retail travel agencies, social media & marketing, and business management.