For the Love of a Good Travel Agent
We live in a time where we can pretty much do anything we want with very little help from a human. Ask Siri. Alexa. Google. We can order groceries online, work online, exercise online….. I sat down (online) with Tom Gehrels, one of my favourite FLY Travel Radio guests. Tom is the owner of Adventure Coordinators, specializing in small group adventure tours, self-guided holidays, small-ship journeys and private, tailor-made trips. Tom himself has been to 103 countries and counting. He loves hiking trips, self-drive trips, group trips, solo trips…. Tom loves trips.
I met with him to discuss my ideas for a year-long sabbatical I am planning in 2023. Thank goodness I reached out to him. I was already going to the wrong places at the wrong time. He saved me from trekking Patagonia during the cold, rainy season, and from going on an African safari when I would least expect to see any animals. While some things have improved with technology, you cannot replace the relationship with an actual human being who has the knowledge, the experience, and the passion to help people build life-changing trips and memories. There is no better person to do this for you than Tom Gehrels. Here is what I learned about why a good travel agent is invaluable.
MELISSA: What do you call yourself these days, Tom?
TOM: I call myself a travel consultant, adventure coordinator, travel agent….
MELISSA: What do you do? What is your job?
TOM: Well, I give people ideas when to go where and if they have absolutely no idea…. I had a couple just recently who came to me and wanted to go on their honeymoon to Africa. They weren’t quite sure where to go, and they had quite different ideas, the husband and wife. So, I talked them into a third idea… (BOTH LAUGH) which was Botswana for their safari. They had money to spend, they were quite open about that, so I told them about these private game reserves in Botswana. I gave them the idea, they agreed, they went on the trip, and they absolutely loved it.
MELISSA: Oh wow.
TOM: So, what do you do as a travel agent? Well, you literally just put together what you think is the best trip for people. I can of course come at it from my own perspective and say this is what I love to do [on a trip], and that works for some people but there are also people who have a good sense of what they want to do. If not, I’ll ask them. What are your interests? If they say food is a real interest, well, I’ll make sure there is a good food component there, right?
MELISSA: For sure.
TOM: Going back to that couple taking their honeymoon in Africa, we had booked them on BA Flights within South Africa. They were going Capetown to Joburg to Vic Falls. The flights got cancelled because the airline went belly up. BA didn’t, but they had farmed the flights out to a local airline, which went belly up. So now what do you do? They don’t want to deal with that, they are having the time of their life, so this is where I come in. I got them alternate plans, they still got to do everything they wanted to do and by the time they got home, I had a letter in their mailbox for their insurance company. So those are also things that a travel agent does.
“The rails do fall off! People don’t realize it, but they do.”
MELISSA: You’ve probably had to save so many people on their holiday when things go awry… do you like that part of your job?
TOM: I do actually, because it’s quite rewarding. Do you remember my Uganda story? (Read it here). It happened as COVID was just hitting in March of 2020. A friend of a client was stuck in Uganda and wanted to come home. The airline she had booked with was cancelling all flights out of the country and was not picking up the phone, probably due to an overwhelming number of people in similar situations. I was able to get her flight changed and get her home safely. I didn’t think much of it until she acknowledged me with a letter to the Globe and Mail! I have that letter on my wall next to may laptop, so I look at it every so often. That is one of my highlights, that someone wrote into the Globe and Mail to thank me. You just go in there not expecting anything from it, just wanting to help somebody and that came out of it. That’s kind of neat.
MELISSA: Would you say that’s one of the benefits of hiring someone like you? When the rails fall off, there’s always a safety net, right? You’re there.
TOM: Yup. The rails do fall off! People don’t realize it, but they do. And of course, these days, I mean it’s a little bit less now, but in the last six to twelve months, trying to work your way through all the different COVID protocols out there – I have a tool which really helps people figure it all out.
MELISSA: Everyone can go on the internet but there is still so much to it, booking trips, knowing the right time of year, all the details, the research….. A lot of people don’t have time for all of this. They don’t want to do the work. I actually don’t like doing it.
TOM: Well, there is that. And there is also the ‘what can you trust’ that’s out there on the internet, right?
TOM: I bet if you google, ‘Do storks bring babies?’, the answer will be ‘Yes, they do’ because somebody out there sells storks that deliver babies! If you google what is the best time to go to Patagonia, well, there’s no doubt you’ll find somebody who will tell you that you can go year-round because they happen to have snowman building trips or whatever, so… it’s really hard to weed through all that stuff and I think that’s when an experienced travel agent does come in.
“I literally love planning trips for people, and I love when they come back and they say they had such a fantastic time.”
MELISSA: Can you get better flights and deals than I would if I was looking myself? Do you have more access and resources to better deals?
TOM: Yeah, it’s not just the tools, it’s also the knowledge of how to construct an airfare. I sometimes see people that try to book a really complicated ticket all at once. You’re going to get hammered with airfares because the airline computers just don’t know how to handle different flights by different airlines and putting them all on one ticket. So as a travel agent, you know how to split this ticket out, split that ticket out and now your price has dropped by 70% easily. Those are the little tricks of the trade that travel agents know as well.
MELISSA: What’s your longest relationship with a client?
TOM: I sent out an email to my entire client database saying, “I’m going to Greece, who is coming with?” It was really meant in the spirit of “I’m travelling, are you?” My client Allan from Halifax picked up on it, and he booked on the same trip as me. We had a great time, but he kept saying he was the only client stupid enough to travel with me! (BOTH LAUGH) But I still remember the first time he called me, which was probably a good 20 years ago. He called me from the back of a van, he was on a ski trip with a bunch of guys in Tremblant. He called me and said that he wanted to go to Morocco. He booked a trip with me right there from the back of the van!
TOM: He has been booking trips with me ever since.
TOM: Yup. I’m very fortunate. I have a lot of clients that have been with me that long. If you go on adventurecoordinators.com in the About Us section, you’ll see lots of people saying that they have booked trips for years with Tom.
MELISSA: I can see that. If someone looks after you well the first time, why would you even want to bother doing this on your own after?
TOM: Right. It becomes a matter of trust, I think. I mean, personal relationships these days are few and far between. You know, I’ve been with the same investment banker for 20 years, and I was with the same doctor until he died. So…. there you go!
“You want somebody who knows their stuff, who can listen and who can ask the right questions. And who has the right contacts and contracts to book all these trips.”
MELISSA: Yeah, I get that. It makes so much sense. Do you find your clients to be of a specific demographic? Do you have any young people coming to you?
TOM: Yeah, I do but not as many as I do older people. My biggest two groups are middle-aged professionals, most started with me in their thirties and are still with me now that they are in their fifties, and then retired people. Those are my two big groups. But I am getting the occasional young person, like those honeymooners we spoke of. I did another honeymoon a couple years ago and his review was “I have never used a travel agent, but I’m bloody glad I did and found you”. So, you do find that once people do start using a good travel agent, they do see the value.
MELISSA: What should someone look for in a travel agent? Is it someone whose interests align with yours, or they get who you are and what you want, is that what we’re looking for?
TOM: I think somebody who, first of all, knows their stuff. Somebody who listens and doesn’t try to sell what they are interested in. That is not a good travel agent. You’ve got to listen to what your client wants. You do want to steer them, you know, so if you were to go to Patagonia in August, I’d say, nope, not going to happen. If somebody wanted to go to Morocco in July, you tell them, look, it’s going to be hot. Are you prepared for that? If they tell you they love heat, then okay, let’s go. If they say they hate heat, then let’s look at the fall instead. So, you want somebody who knows their stuff, who can listen and who can ask the right questions. And who has the right contacts and contracts to book all these trips.
MELISSA: How long have you been doing this?
TOM: I’ve been doing this since ’93….and since 2015 as my own boss which I really enjoy even more, because now it’s not just advising on travel, it’s also the marketing which as it turns out, I really enjoy.
MELISSA: What else do you love about your job?
TOM: What do I love about it? I literally love planning trips for people, and I love when they come back and they say they had such a fantastic time.
“I don’t think you can convince someone to use a travel agent unless they see the value of it, so either you use them or you have never used them, but now you got into trouble and you think, well maybe I should have used a travel agent. You do find that once people do start using a good travel agent, they do see the value.”
MELISSA: What are your rates, Tom?
TOM: Well, I have never charged anyone a fee for my services other than airfare. I have a flat fee for that. It used to be $100 but since the pandemic, I charge $150 per person unless it’s a big group. I have a big group going to Croatia in a little while and I’m charging them $50 per person. Although as it turns out, everyone is booking their individual airfare in the end…. and I still did all that work! (LAUGHS) But that’s really the only fee I have. For the rest, the tour companies pay me a commission for the tours that I book. And they all pay the same so as far as that’s concerned, I am not biased towards one over the other, I just think that some tour companies excel in one thing and other tour companies excel in another. That’s when I push that particular type of their product.
TOM: Some travel agents charge a fee upfront, what they call a planning fee. It’s like a retainer and then that fee goes towards the final tour costs. You typically do that if you’re doing a tailor-made trip, so not just booking an Intrepid package for example, but if you’re doing tailor-made where you’re booking all the tours and all the hotels individually. You are creating a trip from scratch. That’s where a travel agent will often charge a planning deposit. I have tried it in the past, but it doesn’t always work. I tend to do more of an outline of an itinerary, showing what it’s going to cost and when people realize that it’s too expensive, they go away. If they realize, hey, that’s within my budget and within my expectations, then they tend to stick with you, so I don’t find I need to charge that fee very often.
MELISSA: What are some of the tour companies you work with?
TOM: Some of the bigger ones are Exodus, Explore, Intrepid, Backroads, Country Walkers, G Adventures, World Expeditions, UTracks…..
MELISSA: Where are things at in terms of business now in the aftermath, hopefully, of COVID?
TOM: It’s hard to say, it’s better than a year ago. March was my busiest month ever. Then it tapered off a bit. Nothing happened in June, but I just had some bookings. It’s going up and down. When I look at forward bookings for the fall and winter, as long as countries don’t shut down again, we will be out of this mess.
MELISSA: I would think that people are really itching to get back out there.
TOM: Oh, you better believe it. Oh yeah, they are. I’ve only been back from Greece two months and I’m dying to get back out again.
“It becomes a matter of trust, I think. I mean, personal relationships these days are few and far between.”
MELISSA: Is there anything else you’d like to share with me about your life as a travel agent?
TOM: You know, it’s interesting because I had two people in the last month who asked me, “What do you do?” and I said, “I’m a travel agent” and they actually said, “Oh, people still use those?”
MELISSA: Yeah, how do you feel when people say that?
TOM: I think it’s rude. I don’t think they mean it like that so I get over it pretty quickly, I just don’t say anything and luckily of course I had my buddy Allan by my side who immediately piped up and said, “Yes, absolutely, I do!” (LAUGHS) So I didn’t actually have to say anything. I don’t think you can convince someone to use a travel agent unless they see the value of it, so either you use them or you have never used them, but now you got into trouble and you think, well maybe I should have used a travel agent. But there is still a significant number of people out there who just won’t. And I think there is a little bit of ….ummm…. snobbishness is maybe not the right word, but kind of….. I just don’t. I can do it all online and you know, certain things you can do all online, absolutely, no doubt about it, but there are certain things that you can’t.
TOM: And if you have time, then you can do more things than if you don’t have time. Perhaps the best analogy is investing. Some people like to do the research and will do all their own investments, into individual stocks, with all the risks that come with it. Then there are those who invest in mutual funds, where the experts do the trading. And finally, there are people who use an investment banker so they have someone to talk to and make informed decisions.
Before we go, here is one last piece of advice. You can research things to death and sometimes its just…. I pick a trip, I look at the map…. If it looks good, I book it. It works great.
MELISSA: Oh, me too, that is how I roll as well! Thanks so much, Tom.
TOM: Thank you!
It is always a huge pleasure to speak with Tom. He is a genuine person. Good-hearted, funny, kind, smart, a true adventure seeker, and the most well-traveled person you could meet. Be sure to visit Adventure Coordinators for your next trip. You can find our FLY Travel Radio interviews here: https://bit.ly/3S3gwyA
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