DEMA's Done: Where Does Your Travel Program Stand?
Let's remember back to mid-November of last year. The DEMA Show. Las Vegas. Got it? I know a lot has happened since then, but it's time to check in with your travel program plans. While at the show you attended travel seminars, gathered stacks of brochures, took pages of notes and talked to people who offer dive travel in beautiful faraway destinations. You questioned other dive travel specialists who have run trips to these places. As DEMA ended, you were excited to start promoting new travel destinations. For much of the trip home you were creating your to-do list: call VIP customers, send out emails, post announcements on social media outlets…. You couldn't wait to talk to your customers about these exciting destinations and you had so many plans and ideas for booking and selling the trips. Then you arrived home, and it's possible something altogether different happened. Day-to-day business collided with your to-do list. As JND Divers' (Palm Bay, Florida) co-owner Jeff Dornbos says, "You spend a few days catching up on the business of running the store, suddenly it's Thanksgiving, then Christmas and the start of a new year." Now it's been a few months and maybe you have haven't gotten back to contacting the resorts you wanted to talk to again. Does this sound familiar?
Don't despair. It happens. Just don't give up, either. Now's the time to get your travel program back on track.
A DEMA Do-Over
You invested time and money on gathering the intel you need to boost your dive travel program, so don't let the trail grow cold. First off, schedule yourself "out" for a few hours -- someplace where you won't be interrupted -- and gather up all your brochures and notes.
Step 1 is to prioritize your potential travel calendar. Review your notes. Did you make reservations for any trips? If so, did you actually put deposits on any trips? Take a hard look at these trips right now … today. How far out are the trips booked? Do you still have time to sell the spaces you reserved? If you have doubts about selling all the spaces in time, call the destination or dive travel wholesaler. See if it is possible to push the dates back. In some cases, particularly with live-aboard trips, there may be no availability until much later. If so, find out what the penalty will be if you need to reduce the numbers. How many do you need to keep any FOC (free of charge) spaces? Does the price go up with lower numbers? Are there additional payments due now? If so, can they give you a little more time to collect deposits from your customers? Don't be afraid to ask for something that may seem improbable; I have often been surprised at how helpful a hotel and/or dive operator has been to help make my trip a success.
Did you make reservations that you didn't leave a deposit for? Call to see if the reservation still stands. It might not. If you still are interested in the trip, do you need to back up the dates? How soon do they need a deposit? Can they give you a little time to sell the trip to a few customers and collect their deposits?
Now go through the brochures and fliers again. You'll notice some destinations might have lost their appeal or you'll realize they are not a good fit for your customers. Time truly does make for clearer heads it seems. How about that? There is one tiny advantage to taking so long to do this; the brochures for destinations you are no longer excited about can be filed straight into the recycle bin. Now sort the brochures you're still interested in into two stacks: one to file for future perusal and another to go through now -- the destinations you are most interested in.
Commit to Target Dates
Look at your calendar and determine when you want/need to add trips. You may have done this on the trip home or even prior to DEMA, but now you've lost a few months. Changes will be necessary. What destinations will work best with the time you have available to sell each of these dates? It is probably too late for the trips you left DEMA wishing to run at the end of 2017, which leaves a gap in your travel itinerary at a time of year that many customers like to travel. Colorado's Denver Divers has a well-planned and successful travel itinerary. I spoke with their travel manager, Ali Miller, for advice on how she would fill this void. She said, "If I want to put together a trip with only a few months to sell, I think about cost, ease of travel and how popular the destination is. Then I think about when to run the trip. Do you have customers who will like to travel over a holiday? And then, who is my customer? I have found that singles and couples with no children will often sign up for a trip at Thanksgiving; New Year's break is popular for families with kids out of school." She then recommended thinking carefully about the destination's suitability for the time of year. In Miller's case -- traveling from Colorado -- the Sea of Cortez or Cozumel are good destinations for the season, easy to reach and less expensive than more distant locales would be. From the East Coast, the Caribbean might be best.
Sell, Sell, Sell -- Fast!
Now look at how you can get your customers on board quickly. If you have less time than you'd like to sell the trip, create a sense of urgency. Get on the phone with personal invitations to your best customers. Make announcements on social media, using lines such as, "Sure to fill quickly!", "New destination! Don't miss the chance to explore with us!" Don't let anything get in the way of getting this done. No more procrastinating -- you need customers signed up with deposits paid now.
Sometimes delays in getting back to your travel plans are unavoidable. Many counties of Louisiana suffered devastating floods just before DEMA last year. Underwater Adventures is in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. It didn't suffer the physical effects of the flooding, but many, many customers were badly affected. Due in part to owner Mark Smith and manager Suzanne Foret devoting much of their time to helping others during and after this flooding, along with customers trying to put their homes and lives back together, some of their usual post-DEMA travel planning activities had to be delayed this year. This doesn't mean they aren't on it now though. They have simply promoted harder to make up for lost time. They have always used the phone and emails extensively to promote events to their customers, but they have stepped it up in the last few weeks. To make up for lost time, they are making more calls and have increased their social media presence, using more avenues than in past years. It's working; they have one sold-out trip to Cozumel and another to Roatan. A second Cozumel trip and the Flower Gardens will probably be sold out prior to you reading this. There is also a 2018 Maldives trip beginning to sell.
If late attempts to fill a trip fail and it's too late to get back your deposit or move it to a later date, you might consider one more option. If you get a few customers signed up, but not enough to cover the cost of your trip leader, consider sending seasoned dive travel customers on the trip without you. With enough notice, some dive operators will allow you to apply your deposit to as few as one or two guests. Your customers will miss the group camaraderie and your guidance, but they may be excited enough about the destination that they will be relieved that the trip isn't being canceled. What if even this isn't possible and you lose the deposit? Consider it a lesson learned, a mistake you have no intention of repeating … and let it go. You are definitely not the only person to have let this happen. I talked to more than one dive center owner who admitted to this. I'll protect their identities, but I freely admit I am among the guilty. The good news is I learned my lesson and did not let it happen again. Put it aside and get on with the rest of your travel itinerary.
What about the exotic, more expensive destinations you wanted to run? In most cases, these take a minimum of a year, probably closer to two to plan, market and sell due to cost, length of trip, and space availability. If you made reservations for one or more of these trips and haven't begun marketing, you will need to take a hard, honest look at whether you need to change the dates. It may seem that these trips are booked so far out that a delay of a couple of months wouldn't really affect them. If your reason for booking the trip so far into the future wasn't due to those being the first dates space was available, then it was probably anticipating the need for time to promote and sell the trip. It's doubtful that this fact has changed. When making a change to these dates, keep in mind seasonal diving conditions. You may have to back the trip up for longer than the time you've lost. Let's say your trip is to the Galapagos. Currents, marine life, temperatures and ocean conditions vary tremendously from season to season. If you wish to see the larger schools of hammerheads and mantas, experience warmer water and generally calmer seas, December to May is the best time; however, if diving with a large number of whale sharks feeding on plankton carried by the strong convergence of currents and upwellings, the colder months of June to November is when you want to be there. If your customers are primarily interested in the hammerheads and are not inclined to dive the colder temperatures, your trip may need to be backed up to the next year. Be sure to take seasonal recommendations into account prior to choosing your new dates.
Ask! There May Still Be Deals On the Table
How about the DEMA specials you were planning to use to keep the cost down or build additional profit into the trip? Or the extras that were being offered at DEMA (like free nitrox upgrade or an additional boat trip) that were certain to add to the destination appeal for your customers? It may not be too late. Like many dive center owners, Marta Mullen from Castaway Scuba in Orlando, Florida, has travel and the specials offered as her primary objective at the DEMA Show, but she isn't always ready to commit to a trip right away. She had this to offer: "Don't be afraid to ask. Even a couple months later, I always ask if they could possibly extend that DEMA special for me, or if they have any other offers. I rarely hang up without something that will help my sales and won't hurt on their end."
Think through other dive travel tasks that have been neglected in these few months to do with your travel program. Have you booked the "fam" (short for familiarization) trips you were interested in? After each DEMA Show, Underwater Adventures' Smith always informs the instructors teaching with Underwater Adventures about any of these trips available to give them the opportunity to check out destinations to which they would like to take a group. He's just getting to that now. Don't assume that because you didn't sign up for these right away that it's too late. It is often possible to get in on fam trips months after DEMA. Occasionally the destination will put together a second trip to meet a higher demand than expected. Several fam trips I've joined have been due to a last-minute cancellation. There may also be an opportunity to create your own fam trip. Some dive operators and hotels are willing to allow confirmed travel leaders looking at booking future trips to visit and dive at a reduced cost.
Once you have gone through all this, some simple organization should go far in keeping you on track as you work to make up for lost time. Sit down with your calendar and map out dates that tasks must be complete. This contributes to the great success Denver Divers has on their travel program. Include reminders that these dates are approaching, like a notice of a couple of weeks that a payment is coming due. Make these the dates that customer payments are due, giving yourself time to collect, deposit and get the money to your destination. An important date Miller makes note of is the last date she can cancel spaces. This is often different for airlines, land destinations and live-aboards. In general, live-aboards and airlines typically require 90 days, with land-based resorts requiring only 60 days. To simplify things, she uses 90 days for everything. If you are still using a paper calendar, consider changing to an electronic version. As annoying as the beeps and flashing words may be when you first make the transition, the combination of visual and audible reminders is hard to ignore, even for the worst of procrastinators.
Finally, be proactive in making sure this doesn't happen again. This is particularly important if this wasn't the first time you found yourself playing catch-up. DEMA Show 2017 is November 1-4 in Orlando, Florida. Add it to your calendar (now), with reminders one, two and three weeks afterward to go through all those promotional materials, and file, make deposits, market, etc. Heck, go for the gold in efficiency, and pull up dema.org to get DEMA Show dates and locations through 2020.