Interview By: Andy Ogg, Senior Editor – Travel Professional NEWS
Interviewing: Bill Coyle, Director of Education and Programs – KHM Travel Group
First off, thank you very much for the time today and for sharing this information to our wonderful following of Travel Professionals!
Thank you, Andy! I’m grateful to be featured, especially since we are going to be talking about travel agent education.
For those of our readers that aren’t aware of KHM Travel Group, can you share a bit of history about your Host Travel Agency?
KHM Travel Group was founded in 2005 as a small, family-run business just south of Cleveland, Ohio. Our President and CEO, Rick Zimmerman, has been leading the way since the beginning. Through our dedication to travel agent education and support, gradually we’ve become one of the leading host agencies in the country. We now host more than 4,800 travel agents and have a team of nearly 75 people to support them in our Corporate Office. We work very hard to maintain that family feeling among our team and with our agents.
I joined the KHM Travel Group staff in January of 2016, after 20 years of running my family’s retail travel agency.
The Host Agency marketplace has become quite competitive in the past couple of years, can you share what sets you apart from other Host Agency options?
Our ratio of corporate staff to agents is unusual for the industry. We have one team member for every 65 agents, which is what allows us to provide the level of support that we do. It goes beyond quantity though to the range of expertise we have in-house. We can provide world-class support to our agents in every facet of their businesses because we have experienced travel agents, business experts, and marketing professionals on our team. We even have a dedicated tech support team!
At the heart of all this is an owner who genuinely cares about the wellbeing of our agents and our team members. Rick always takes every opportunity to get to know our agents, whether they’ve been with us for five days or five years. He sets a great example.
Where do you stand on the specialize or not specialize debate — is it beneficial for agents to develop a niche?
It certainly is beneficial for some agents. Back when I got started at our brick-and-mortar agency, retail agents couldn’t really specialize. They had to be prepared for whatever walked in the door. Now that many agents are home-based, it’s easier for them to specialize if they want to, because they can just market the specific destinations or types of travel they want to sell.
For new agents, specializing could take away some of that pressure they might feel to know everything right off the bat. There’s also no rush to specialize, because home-based agents are learning and working their business at their own pace. They can always start off just booking general travel, and then move into a niche as their business develops.
Especially for new agents, it can be hard to develop confidence when talking about and selling a destination they haven’t been to. In your experience, what is the most comprehensive and reliable way to learn about a travel product, outside of experiencing it?
Just because you haven’t visited a place or a ship doesn’t mean you can’t learn how to build an itinerary for it. Start with destination-intensive training for the destinations you want to sell. Many years ago, I completed my Hawaii training before I ever went to the islands and was able to successfully book Hawaii just by diving into it.
The other very valuable way to learn is to speak to people who have been there. I have learned so much listening to our BDMs talk about destinations, and what they personally loved about them. Listen to your clients and potential clients who have been to that destination – seek them out and use their reviews to build your knowledge.
With so many websites and teaching platforms out there today, how do new agents know what is right for them?
Agents have to start somewhere, and for hosted agents, hopefully they can rely on their host agency’s Learning Management System to help them lay a foundation they can build their business on. We always encourage our agents to start with our Agent Basics courses.
After that, agents can use their passion to figure out what other courses or programs might be beneficial to them. If there’s a certain supplier that they love, I’d suggest starting with that supplier’s training. The supplier BDMs are also fantastic resources, if agents have the chance to get to ask them where to go for information.
The other thing I encourage agents to do is seek out in-person events in their area, whether it be through ASTA, CLIA, or a travel supplier. Last year, we also started Team-Ups as a way to get small groups of KHM Travel Agents in the same regions to get together, talk about their businesses, and learn from each other.
In your opinion, what are the major differences between the educational journey of a hosted agent versus a non-hosted agent?
A hosted agent will be able to stay more up-to-date on their professional development opportunities. Without a host, there just won’t be as much variety in what is offered. These agents also aren’t as likely to have access to cutting-edge educators who are willing to share their experiences and knowledge. A host agency gives agents the ability to learn in a classroom setting (whether that be online or in-person) and actually take advantage of the knowledge of other travel agents, rather than just learning from suppliers.
For agents that have been around for years, what advice do you give them to help them stay relevant to their clients?
The key is getting out of the mindset we’ve always been in. Not everyone wants to go to the same resorts in the Caribbean and Mexico. The consumer market drives the change, and it’s important that travel agents maintain an understanding of clients’ needs.
As agents, if you find yourself in a rut where you’re selling the same destinations to the same clients, that’s when it’s time to look at new markets. When I first started, I never would’ve imagined I’d be sending clients to The Maldives, but I have a honeymoon couple there right now. They are sending me pictures every day of how much they are loving it.
After 30 years in the travel industry, what makes a travel experience exceptional for you?
I really enjoy stepping out of my comfort zone and experiencing places I haven’t before. Sharing my experiences of these places with agents to help educate them makes it even more rewarding.
Since I’ve become part of KHM Travel Group, I’ve also been so fortunate to meet people in my travels that I would not have otherwise. Earlier this month, I lead a panel with top cruise executives like Adolfo Perez, Vicki Freed, and Camille Olivere at Cruise360, which is an opportunity I never would have had before KHM Travel Group.
What 3 things would you like Travel Professionals to know about KHM Travel Group?
The first thing was a huge realization for me when we joined KHM Travel Group, and it’s about the commission potential. KHM Travel Agents earn more through us at their commission level (whether it be 80% or 90%) than they would if they earned 100% commission on their own. It’s as simple as sales volume.
Second, I can’t emphasize enough how passionately invested each of our team members are in our agents. We want agents to know we are with them for long haul, and I think that comes through in all our interactions. As a company, we are not successful if our agents aren’t successful.
Finally, Rick and our Executive Team really empower us to make decisions to help our agents. Together we developed a set of core values, and we really strive to live them each day.
Do you offer any training or educational opportunities to Travel Professionals who are looking to partner with a Host Travel Agency?
Our education starts with our Learning Management System (LMS), which is available online through our Travel Agent Portal. The LMS acts like an online classroom, and its especially essential for new agents to go through our Getting Started courses so they can learn the basics of the travel industry.
We also have a full calendar of webinars hosted by our suppliers and the KHM Travel Group team. We have multiple webinars every week, and agents can access those recordings.
We also host live events that are produced in-house. We design the curriculum and create all the materials for our events, so everything is designed specifically for our agents. Our Boot Camp is geared towards newer agents, and we also host Destination Success which is more supplier-focused. Our big event each year, the Crystal Conference, is an educational event and is held in destination or on a ship, so that adds another layer of value for attendees.
With 2019 well underway, is there anything new on the horizon for KHM Travel Group?
We have a newly formed Group Team that is dedicated to helping our agents learn and be successful booking groups. The group segment continues to grow, so I just know that team is going to be busy well into the future.
We are also rolling out Boot Camp 2.0 later this year, which is a new event we’ve developed for agents ready to go beyond the basics that are learned at Boot Camp. It’s geared toward more experienced agents who want to gain knowledge of new markets, destinations, and products.
Internally, we’ve gotten to the point where we’ve outgrown our current corporate office, and so we’ll be moving this month and into June. It’s just down the road from where we are on now, but it’s going to make a world of difference in terms of our ability to grow. This new space will allow us to expand our team and further support our agents.
If a Travel Professional is interested in learning more about KHM Travel Group, where can they go to do that?
They can visit KHMTravel.com or give our amazing Membership Team a call at 1-888-611-1220.
Before we conclude, I personally want to thank you for your time and information shared today. This is some fantastic insight to any Travel Professional and we very much appreciate your insights.
Thank you, Andy! I appreciate the opportunity.