This week, Recommend attended Dream Vacations’ virtual “Travel Advisor Learning Summit,” where Brad Tolkin, co-CEO of World Travel Holdings, opened up the conference with his keynote address. He provided insight into the future of the travel industry and discussed trends he sees on the horizon as travel begins to reopen.
Tolkin started the conversation by thanking both veterans and travel advisors as he said, “This is an epic tragedy, the pandemic called COVID-19, once in a century, and I thank you for the sacrifices you have made.”
He then continued, “I am so excited about tomorrow and tomorrow is here. The vaccinations, they are working. This is not a statement about whether we should require people to be vaccinated to do anything in society; it is a statement that they are working. At this time over 50 percent of the U.S. population is vaccinated. We have vaccinated more people in our country than any other place in the world by a wide margin.
“The travel industry, especially the leisure travel industry, is now at the very beginning of what will be our greatest moment.”
—Brad Tolkin, Co-CEO of World Travel Holdings
“The U.S., Mexico and the Caribbean are open. For the last six weeks, my company’s non-cruise bookings are up almost 50 percent, comparing to what we were booking in 2019.” He adds that 2019 was a phenomenal year for leisure travel, “so beating these numbers by a significant amount is validating the explosion in business we are seeing and have predicted, in spite of the first part of this year basically being closed to all travel. Our non-cruise business in total is now well ahead of 2019—double digit growth.”
Tolkin noted that consumers are booking at higher prices for both cruise and non-cruise, which increases the commission travel advisors make on every booking.
“What we are seeing is that the consumer is speaking and is very comfortable with traveling,” he adds.
Switching over to discuss the current state of the cruise industry, Tolkin opened up by saying, “Cruise lines have paid you for canceled cruises due to no fault of theirs, as well as will be paying you on the Future Cruise Credit they issue. The major cruise lines, in spite of their own significant financial challenges, recognized the level of work to rebook these passengers and are paying you twice.”
He added, “The conventional thinking is that cruising will never be the same. Nothing could be further from the truth. Please do not sell the cruise line recovery short.” He then noted the similar conversations that took place after the tragedy of September 11, 2001 when people said that flying would change forever, “and it did,” he said. “More people than ever wanted to travel to more places around the world. Modern cruising has always been the best value in leisure travel and this reality will not change. The cruising industry has shed a lot of older hardware over the last 16 months, the product is even better because of this, and many first-time cruisers who just want a quick 3- or 4-night trip to tip-toe into this market, will now get this opportunity on amazing ships.
“The opportunity for the cruising industry is huge,” he continued.
Value of the Travel Advisor
He then touched upon commissionable fares by adding, “I’m not naive about the non-commissionable fare or the NCF associated with most cruise lines. This is a yellow blinking light that your colleagues, such as me, constantly discuss with the cruise lines.
“First, it was about the airlines cutting commissions in the 1990s, then it was the presence of online travel companies like Expedia, Travelocity and Orbitz, and then it was the onslaught of the Internet. I have heard the death-march of the professional travel advisor far too often. It is simply never going to happen. The consumer values you and the suppliers need you.”
“Never before have we as a country ever been locked down for so long. Mark my words, the headline on January 1, 2023—18 months from now will be, ‘The Best Business to have Been in, in 2022 was the Travel Business.’”
—Brad Tolkin, Co-CEO of World Travel Holdings
“WTH is diversified with both a strong travel advisor franchise network and independent contract network as well as business lines that sell directly to the consumer,” he said. “So, we have this great lens on how travel is distributed. Over the last 12 months, our travel advisor channel has been doing significantly better than our direct-to-consumer business lines. This trend continued not only through last year, but is also continuing this year. And it’s not even close. What this is saying, more than ever, is that the consumer wants the advice, the comfort and professionalism that comes with a top-notch travel advisor handling their holiday.”
Tolkin then discussed the trends for Millennial travelers. Nothing that he has Millennial children who use travel advisors for big trips.
“For those who say Millennials will only use the Internet, wrong! They love technology, but they value their time, they value professionals. I have three sons, and three daughter-in-laws, and very few of their friends book a holiday on their own. I’m not talking about a 2-night hotel in Florida, or a point-to-point air ticket. I’m speaking about a holiday for their family, a honeymoon, a celebration trip,” he noted.
Travel Surge is Coming
“More consumers more than ever want to travel,” stressed Tolkin. “When I got into this business, travel was a luxury, now the consumer feels it’s an entitlement.
“I know it is choppy now, but I have said so many times, that this will be the greatest surge in leisure travel we have ever seen. Holiday travel at the end of this year, and all of next year, is going to be insane.
“You need to book your costumers now or both of you will be hearing words we hardly heard for the last 16 months—sold out,” he noted.
He pointed out that over the last 16 months we have witnessed many businesses have their best years ever—real estate, technology companies, online merchandise companies and the like. “The travel industry, especially the leisure travel industry, is now at the very beginning of what will be our greatest moment,” he said.
“Our non-cruise business is exploding. And when cruising fully restarts, you will not be able to handle the onslaught of demand for leisure travel. My advice—buckle up,” he added.
“We still have six months left in the year to go and look how far we have come. Just imagine how far we will be six months from now when we begin 2022.
“I have witnessed the travel recovery after two Gulf Wars, multiple recessions and the horrific tragedy of September 11, 2001, this has been another iconic tragedy, but this is the greatest buildup of travel demand that I have ever seen,” he added.
“Never before have we as a country ever been locked down for so long. Mark my words, the headline on Jan. 1, 2023—18 months from now—will be, ‘The Best Business to have Been in, in 2022 was the Travel Business,’” he said.
He added that, group travel is going to do better coming out of this tragedy. “The reason is because more people will be working from home. There will be more of a need for people to get together,” he said. “I think group travel is going to be tremendous.”
World Travel Holding’s Role in Recovery
When asked what WTH did to support their advisors during the pandemic, Tolkin started by saying that specifically in the cruise industry, they’ve been advising their advisors to be on top of the Future Cruise Credits.
He then added how WTH tried to support their advisors during the difficulty that was the pandemic. “We recognized this was an incredibly difficult time in the leisure travel industry. Another thing we did is that we put a million dollars of our own money out there, in addition to the money that our franchisees were able to get,” he said. “And we loaned money to our franchisees. And the third thing was that we realized that a lot of them didn’t have a relationship with their local bank to get the PPP money. So, in addition to the million dollars that we took out of our own pocket and allocated, we affiliated with our own bank to help facilitate those franchisees who could not access the PPP money on their own. That’s just an example of a few of the things we did.”
Tips for Travel Advisors
Tolkin said that throughout 2020 their recruitment never stopped and “the reception we got from people to be in this business was incredible.”
“Most people that joined Dream Vacations were new to the business. The fact that we learned we can work from home and be productive, it’s just a nod for the future of the home-based travel advisor. If this pandemic occurred 15 years ago, how many industries would not have survived? We can function from the comfort of being anywhere—you can be effective, productive and profitable,” he added.
He then advised that those advisors who are new to the industry to focus on what they want to sell. “You can’t sell the world. Know the product well,” he said, adding that it’s better to know one product well, than try to sell everything.
As for the travel advisor-supplier relationship, Tolkin said, “There are many entities like WTH that have one thing in common—they have incredible relationships with suppliers, and especially the large suppliers. We bring the ability to access those relationships from day one.”
He cautioned advisors that over the next six months there will be suppliers who will be very challenged in answering their phones. “It’s going to be a challenge. You can’t have the greatest built-up demand in the history of leisure travel without these challenges.”
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