Mary Daughton is a Colorado agent whose company, Out of the Blue Travel, delivers exotic and unique vacations with an extraordinary emphasis on personal service. Over the years, she’s developed a tack that has enabled her company to sustain itself quite well, even in the present economy. Here she discusses with us her winning formula as it relates to the dive sector in particular.
TRAVEL WORLD NEWS: Despite the challenges travel agents face these days, you’re able to claim consistent and considerable business from clients—with notable success, according to booking agent Roxanne Borrero of Maduro Travel, slating return trips in the niche area of dive travel. This is remarkable, considering the climate other agents report has affected their numbers. Can you comment on some of the strategies you use to achieve this?
MARY DAUGHTON: Many of my clients have been with me for more than 15–20 years and have traveled with me or on itineraries that I have put together for them to destinations all over the world. The loyalty of my clients has been won by the assurance that my expertise is based upon my personal experience, my attention to detail, my dedication to value for money and my ability to rise to the challenge of difficult and intricate itineraries. Through the years this business strategy has kept my customers more than satisfied and increased my client base through personal referrals.
TWN: What specific approaches and actions are important to enlist pre-trip, and what about once they’re back?
MD: I always ask my client to describe their “perfect” vacation/trip to me. What do they like to do, see, eat, etc. And how much have they budgeted for this trip? I also ask if they have a particular destination in mind, a time of year to travel and length of trip.
If they are new clients I always try to meet with them personally before starting the planning process.
Upon their return I always send follow-up communication to clients requesting feedback.
TWN: What comments do you hear about dive trips you’ve booked? Is there a typical reaction you’ve come to expect? What do you remember as the most favorable feedback you’ve gotten?
MD: Divers usually tell me about the most incredible critters they saw during their dives. Often they share their favorite dive sites. Most clients comment that their trip was too short! I have come to expect rave reviews upon their return. Once, on a group trip to South Africa, several travelers were teary-eyed as they said goodbye to our resort/lodge hosts. I was told by the guests that it was their most memorable trip ever. This was the ultimate compliment.
TWN: Do clients express their wishes for features that you then share with operators to help them refine their product? Have any of your clients ever proposed an innovative idea that found its way into a trip plan?
MD: I always request of operators any special requirements or needs of my clients, especially where it includes a special day to remember or commemorate. I have helped clients plan wedding vow renewals and birthday celebrations on trips.
TWN: Have you found it helps to educate yourself about the sport’s particulars?
MD: I became a scuba diver first and then a travel agent. Thus from the beginning I understood the special needs and requirements of the SCUBA client. This differentiated me from the majority of other travel agents when I was first establishing my business.
TWN: Is it common for divers to seek to widen their destination repertoire? Or would you say they tend to get hooked on sites and go back for more? Have you been able to steer clients to experience dive travel in geographic areas they may not have considered?
MD: Definitely! Divers are addicted to discovery. As my dive clients have matured in their experience they continue to crave new destinations; they look for the frontiers as long as at least some creature comforts are available. As well, I have continued to expand my knowledge of remote, distant, and pristine destinations…my clients have come to count on me for this. Nevertheless, the tried and true destinations remain in demand because of divers’ need to “get wet.” It is thus just as important for me to stay in touch with purveyors I’ve worked with through the years.
TWN: What have you found to be surefire turn-ons for dive clients? Is it the anticipation of a daredevil pursuit in an especially challenging dive environment? Is it diving in isolated magical waters with surprising species below the surface? Is it photographing the colorful underneath?
MD: Along with their quest for new underwater exploration, divers are looking for exposure to varied cultures topside. Few of my clients are content to spend the entire trip with their head underwater, with little or no contact with the people of the land they are visiting. Thus almost from the beginning I have offered and encouraged divers to experience interaction with the locals.
TWN: Is there any element of booking dive travel that you’d caution agents to be especially careful about? Tell us, what should you never say to a dive client?
MD: The most important aspect of a dive trip that an agent should focus on is the safety standards and procedures of the operator/purveyor that you recommend. You should never guarantee the weather or promise the sighting of particular creatures on a dive.
TWN: How do divers compare to other travelers in general? Do you see them as more devoted travelers and therefore a good bet to nurture as clients?
MD: Divers are generally congenial and helpful travelers. If you prove yourself as an honest, trustworthy and knowledgeable agent you will have clients for life!
TWN: How might you tailor an offer to meet a special need when you see the opportunity to add a member (or more) to a dive party who might be on the fence about going?
MD: I try to specifically address the needs and apprehensions of the divers. IE I suggest pre-booking only the number of dives the clients think they will do. I would rather divers book additional dives directly once on-site than over book them and make them feel “locked in” to something they don’t want. Trying to get a refund for unused services is an exercise in frustration for everyone; diver, operator and me.
TWN: With all the thrills they offer for relatively low cost, shouldn’t dive packages be a relatively easy sell? And with the niche offering experiences in so many beautiful waters worldwide, shouldn’t agents who capture a client’s satisfaction and loyalty be in a prime position to reap plenty of return business?
MD: The demands and expectations of the dive traveler are as intricate and noteworthy as any travel client. All aspects of the traveling public have been affected by the economic downturn. It is of utmost importance that we travel agents be sensitive to this issue. The dive niche market can be a financially rewarding one because you are not only booking air and hotel but also daily activities in most cases. I do not always suggest dive packages but rather compare the price for a package and the same trip as an FIT. It is more work perhaps but shows your client that you have gone the extra mile for them.
TWN: Nowadays, perhaps more than ever, the agents who thrive pay attention to familiarizing themselves with great numbers of destinations and the properties of each. Additionally and importantly, they listen to what their clients report, as you obviously do. Over time, hasn’t that made you somewhat of an expert? Do you sense in your clients an attitude of trust in you because of what you’ve learned?
MD: Trust is definitely the operative word in the relationship between me and my clients. My motto is that I treat a client’s trip as if it were my own.
Mary’s success demonstrates that sharpening one’s focus on the client is the key to holding one’s own in today’s turbulent travel industry. Her advice includes paying close attention to the client’s personal profile and wishes, and using that insight to produce a rewarding vacation. Seeking their feedback is important as well, because it keeps improving the product and also lets clients know she cares. Those agents experiencing difficult waters right now should review their approach, and think about Mary’s lessons selling dive.
[stextbox id="black"]Maduro Dive Fanta-Seas, travel specialist since 1975, provides dive travel packages to 39 countries, 79 dive destinations, 220 resorts and 51 dive liveaboards. Known as an innovative leader in dive travel, Maduro Dive Fanta-Seas fully encourages travel agents to sell dive travel: all packages are commissionable and come with a best-rate guarantee. The company also provides a variety of marketing support tools for travel agents.
Headquartered in Florida, Maduro has satellite agents in other states and internationally. They are long-time members of ASTA, ARC, IATAN, DEMA and ATTA, and are certified monthly by TrustWave as a trusted commerce company.
All Maduro Dive specialists are certified divers and travel agents.
Maduro Dive Fanta-Seas, firstname.lastname@example.org, 800-327-6709, www.madurodive.com, blog.madurodive.com