Willie Fernandez, chief marketing officer of Rental Escapes, a luxury villa company, took a call from a travel advisor recently seeking advice about luxury travel.
The advisor had never booked a Rental Escapes holiday; nor was he on the verge of doing so. But Fernandez spent 45 minutes on the phone with him because he considered the advisor a potential customer or “guest.”
In fact, whenever Fernandez does one of his five to ten monthly webinars educating advisors on the Rental Escapes product, he provides his personal email and cell phone number as part of his “guest-centric” approach to business.
Reflecting on that approach, Rental Escapes takes a two-pronged approach to selling luxury villas:
– Every booking is made with a villa specialist or expert.
– Every reservation is transferred to a concierge who then works with the travel advisor in arranging all villa services and experiences.
The guest-centric concept is central to Fernandez’s approach to his job and his company –and he believes it can be valuable to travel advisors to deploy as well. The approach was hard-wired for him when he came to Rental Escapes after a 30-year career across the cruise, hotel, vacation and villa industries, He said his favorite quote is one attributed to Maya Angelou: “People forget what you said. People forget what you did. People never forget how you made them feel.”
Fernandez said he aims to bring that mindset to the company which, for instance, does not take bookings online – by design.
“We want to have conversations with advisors,” said Fernandez, “and want to know their guests – their behaviors, dislikes and preferences.” From there, he said, the company takes the time to match guests to the right villa and to make every experience as personal as possible. Advisors typically go back to the villa specialist they have worked with in the past, who knows them well.
This entire way of doing business, said Fernandez, is based on the fact that travel is a unique product – especially luxury travel. “Unlike when you buy something on Amazon,” he said, “ once you take a vacation you cannot return it; you have lost time and money.”
He said Rental Escapes takes it very personally when 8 or 10 guests are spending close to $30,000 for a week’s vacation – and wants to make sure it’s exceptional. Also by design, the company only represents 5,000 properties – much smaller than the giants in the industry. All are vetted and inspected so that travel advisors can be confident that their guests will have an exceptional stay.
The company’s concierges are also vetted and are constantly traveling to check out villas, as well as local activities like parasailing and horseback riding to make sure guests enjoy a first-class experience. And the concierges report directly to Fernandez.
How does guest-centric work in practice? Fernandez said it’s about listening to the guests to find what is really meaningful to them – not just sending a bottle of wine, but making clients feel valued and appreciated.
He believes travel advisors can adopt a guest-centric approach – even if they are independent contractors working at home. He offers these tips:
– Capture Client Feedback:
Gain a better understanding of your client’s feedback by conducting surveys, launching user testing, and making direct calls. Through these means, travel advisors can gain insight to track their performance, look for patterns, and work towards providing a seamless experience. While individual advisors or smaller agencies may not have the resources to conduct sophisticated surveys, Fernandez said it might simply be a matter of taking notes. As clients take more and more trips and have more conversations with the advisor, those notes will help when they call back. An advisor should know immediately, for instance, if a client prefers a window seat.
– Anticipate Your Customer’s Needs:
Create a product that anticipates the market’s future needs. By doing so, the advisor will know what the customer wants before they even want it. Advisors do not own airplanes or cruise ships, said Fernandez, but what they do own is their relationships with their clients and must take ownership of those relationships to make them personal. When an advisor markets to a client, it should be personal. If a customer has been on the same cruise line 50 times, there is no reason to send them an email about a different cruise line. As an example of knowing your customer, Fernandez said he recently earned a “reward” of a smoothie as a loyal Panera Breads customer. Problem: he had never ordered a smoothie at Panera and would have preferred to earn a cookie.
– Reward Employees:
Tie employee compensation, recognition, and reward structures at your agency directly towards meeting the needs of the customer. This will build trust within the employee base and empower them to think of the customer first. Rental
Escapes has found, said Fernandez, that the greatest reward is not money, it’s the “attaboy” – the recognition that someone has exceeded expectations.
– Be Easily Accessible and Proactive:
Those that handle a phone call well have an opportunity to create an emotional impact and a lasting memory. In turn, clients will feel protected and at ease, as well as be more likely to return. Example: if an advisor hears about a cruise line promotion, he or she should call that cruise line loyalist to let them know. “Look beyond the experience,” said Fernandez, “and make the customer feel like they are your only client.”
– Look Beyond the Purchase:
A long-lasting client is more valuable over time than a single transaction. By creating frictionless experiences, having empathy, and making a customer feel known, those long-term relationships with clients will result in loyalty and retention – and ultimately greater revenue. Fernandez said his wife calls him a “hotel snob” because he is so fussy about his hotel stays. He is a loyal Ritz-Carlton customer because on his and his wife’s annual anniversary stay at one of that brand’s hotels, there is always a Happy Anniversary note, and a tray of the chocolate-covered strawberries his wife loves. Similarly, said Fernandez, he is a fan of Princess Cruises’ Medallion program that creates personalized experiences onboard the line’s ships.
“It’s how all these companies make you feel,” Fernandez reiterates. “We do thousands of bookings every year and make it a point to make every one of them personal. I call as many advisors as I can to thank them for their bookings and that in turn is something they can do for their clients as well.”