Home Travel Expert Advice: Business During the COVID Crisis

Expert Advice: Business During the COVID Crisis

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We caught up recently with Chris Austin, SVP, global marketing and sales for Seabourn. As the winner of the Luxury Travel Advisor Awards of Excellence Top Sales Executive of the Year for 2018, we wanted to gain his insights on how top sales people and travel advisors can get through the pandemic now that the entire playing field has changed. Here’s what he told us.

How are you and what have the past few months been like for you professionally and personally?

The last five months have been filled with numerous emotions and I have had tremendous empathy for everyone. Sadly, the news reports on a daily basis have not been positive and if you are like me you are working harder than ever. It’s also been an opportunity personally to reflect and to understand that existing friendships can be deepened at this time and new friendships made. I’ve been leveraging technology, be it Teams, Zoom or FaceTime to connect with friends and I think I may have seen more of my friends now than pre-COVID. Time is an incredible asset and I’ve used time to reflect on what’s important to me, our world, my husband, life in general. I’m even more motivated to make every day count now and in the future, and despite we yearn to travel and just get out there, I also enjoy the Friday evening cocktail on the deck, just the two of us, talking, dreaming, planning.

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Professionally, this has been the most challenging period I have ever seen and I’m sure many would say the same. We use words like “unprecedented” or “once-in-a-lifetime” and they really are the only ways to capture the sense of what we’re all feeling. Our team has had to juggle so many issues, including the implementation of a full pause of our fleet from guest operations, which is something no one would have ever predicted, to crew repatriation, managing the voluntary pause of our operations, guest and travel advisor communications and so much more. In all, we have made thoughtful decisions and always had the travel advisor top of mind. Advisors are critical to the success of the entire cruise industry and I applaud them all for the commitment they have had to their clients and their supplier partners during this time. We’ve also made some difficult business decisions along the way that, unfortunately, meant a reduction in our workforce. Everyone on the Seabourn team has given something but for those who were laid off it was particularly heartbreaking to say goodbye to really good people who have done so much for our brand and industry. But you know me — I’m an optimist — my glass is always half full so I’m looking forward to the days when all types of travel and, of course, cruise travel resumes once again.

We know that you are adamant about using the basic rules of selling to engage with clients (such as following up after meetings you’ve had at a trade show). Has that changed during the COVID period? Have you fine-tuned your messaging to your team?

That hasn’t changed at all. I’ve been a strong supporter of the travel advisor community for many years, and this support is even more important than ever given the unprecedented and challenging times we find ourselves in together. Success is a shared goal, and I’ve always believed that in my approach with our valued travel advisors. In fact, our entire team shares the same belief: We are partners with a number of shared, common goals ultimately driving mutual success. 

My team and I have been determined to stay connected with our travel advisor partners despite the many challenges we have mutually faced in recent months. We, like many, have replaced in-person office visits or participation at trade shows with virtual connections. We’ve made many efforts to recreate the same human connections, including phone calls and video chats, to remain connected as much as possible. My first direction to my global team was when you call don’t even ask about business just say “you are checking in and want to have a chat to see how you are doing.” Having someone there to listen and share ideas with can be incredibly helpful in determining what’s going on and what the future may hold. I’m very aware that some advisors may be home alone, and may have lost a significant part of social interaction from not going to an office. I know both myself and my team are willing to step up, go above and beyond and help anyone who needs help at this time. Listening is a powerful tool at this time. We’ve also kept a focus on generating ideas to help agencies and advisors maintain precious revenue streams through promotional offers, revised booking and payment policies, and opportunities to earn and preserve commissions. We, along with many cruise lines continue to share stories that support the dream of travel, sparking the next idea that starts the planning cycle. Our Bringing Extraordinary Home series has brought the onboard experience home and I too have enjoyed on a Saturday making one of our executive chef’s recipes; if I have to say it myself, they have turned out pretty well. We hope that all of these actions have all of the intended effects to convey that we’re in this together for the long haul.

What should luxury travel advisors be telling their clients right now about taking a future luxury cruise? What would you recommend the conversation sound like?

I’d want all advisors to recognize that every one of their clients are dreamers, many now are planners as the pent-up demand builds, some may be bookers now and we hope many in the future will of course be travelers. It’s important to listen, and to understand at what stage of the journey I have just outlined the client is in. Don’t be forceful in the approach; in fact, let your client guide the conversation. Facts are powerful, so use this time to study up and then leverage that new-found knowledge and present the facts. Knowing more about your preferred suppliers, the destinations they visit, but of course on COVID, and having answers for the questions the client will ask is important. We realize that health and safety are top concerns for both advisors and their clients. Everyone is looking for reassurance that travel brands are invested in maintaining a healthy environment. 

Some of the things we’re seeing implemented in public places, including hotels and resorts, have been around in the cruise industry for a long time. Hand sanitizer stations, rigorous cleaning procedures and encouragement for regular handwashing are things we have been doing for years. In the future, we will do even more, so advisors and clients should know that we are developing enhanced health protocols and procedures and talking to medical experts and scientists because the health and safety of our guests are always a top priority.

Luxury is being seen as the segment of the travel industry that will recover first, and we’re optimistic that luxury cruising will be a part of that. In today’s world, space and privacy are two things being recognized as the new luxury, and they are easily found on a luxury cruise as ships are smaller in size and have generous space on board. Even if they aren’t ready to travel today, book a vacation for your client and give them something to look forward to again.  

You have said, “In life, you either let destiny rule you or you control your destiny.” How are you applying that credo in the current environment?

We’ve all been dealt a hand this year that no one wanted or anticipated, which can lead to a lot of negative feelings, manifesting themselves in a number of ways. It’s tough to see the industry I love — an industry that provides so many happy memories and unforgettable experiences — be put on hold. I also miss the personal connections and interactions with colleagues, travel advisors, friends and loved ones.

But one thing I’ve learned to do is to not agonize over things outside of my control. Instead, I’ve tried to work around that as much as I can to find the areas where I can somehow effect change on the circumstances we’re facing. Throwing in the towel is just not in my blood and I’m going to ensure the people I interact with see that “can do” spirit every day through words and deeds. We’re a resilient lot in the travel industry if we think back to other adversities we’ve faced. But through every single one of those challenges we’ve found a way to persevere and this will be no exception. I would encourage others to approach things with the same mindset — join me with a glass half full [mindset] and control our destiny. And, if you can somehow extend a hand and help others along the way, even better.

None of us are traveling much these days. Are you able to tell us of one new family tradition or personal hobby you’ve started because you’ve had time to be at home more?

I said earlier that I am working longer and harder; however, I’ve shared that I am in the kitchen, cooking some of Chef Tony Egger’s culinary “at home” delights, I now make the best slightly dirty martini with homemade blue cheese stuffed olives. And, I have ordered once during the last five months some Regiis Ova caviar; that’s the brand we serve complimentary on board. And so Alex (my husband) and I have indulged at home by creating a special Seabourn Moment.

That’s it! What have we left out that you’d like to include?

I really want to express my sincere appreciation to every single travel advisor who has worked with us, in fact all supplier partners we’ve worked with or who would like to work with us in the future. We’ve all faced some trying moments this year but we realize there are genuine people with families and livelihoods at stake, and we want to do our part to ensure they remain successful in the months and the years ahead. Travel will bounce back, as it has before, and we will certainly be ready to offer advisors’ clients a safe, memorable travel experience in so many parts of the world once that occurs.

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