How To: Plan a Sales Mission

Images from Fire Starter Brands' sales missions

It happened again. I got a call from a group of suppliers asking me to set up some appointments for them to meet with travel planners in a certain area and I had to turn them down. 

Over the past decade, I've planned, managed, delivered and participated in more than 200 sales missions, introducing the industry's highest volume travel planners to the destinations, services, products and activities they've come to share with millions of passengers every year. More importantly, I've introduced those planners to the people who represent each of those components and the people who will help them improve their offerings and better care for the end consumer. 

More than 80% of product managers and high volume travel buyers rate their relationships with suppliers as one of the most important factors when deciding where to send their guests. Many of these buyers also say they're willing to pay a bit more to work with suppliers they trust, people they know will take care of their reputations as well as they do the consumer. (Source: Fire Starter Brands 2016 Professional Travel Survey)

Planning a great sales mission requires a bit more than a good list and a comfortable ride. I'm pulling back the curtain to share with you some of the secrets to our success. Take a look.

Where are we going? 

It all starts with the list of prospects. It's pretty easy to sort/filter a list of buyers to identify those within a certain geographic area but is each of those worth visiting? Probably not. I've worked with my team to customize our database so that we can sort buyers by their annual passenger volume, trade affiliations, customer types, how they sell their product and a number of other factors that help us easily spot those we need to see most in any given area. Using these prioritized lists, online tools like mapyourlist and batchgeo are great for showing where these offices are in proximity to each other. With a geographic center, I can select the hotel and map out the easiest route for each day using the directions tool on google. 

In addition to stopping to see travel planners, I also like to include a few local highlights with each mission - top rated local restaurants, scenic overlook or some iconic location in each city to break up the day a bit. As much as we are travel professionals, we're also travelers and it's important that we experience the places we visit. 

When should we go?

Every year, I hear from travel planners that they are selling year-round. Buyers are constantly looking for new ideas and for the suppliers who will provide them with the pricing, tools and response they need to deliver great new product. Market research backs up this trend with fewer buyers identifying a specific calendar period as being the most important for them to find new product. 

So then, when is the best time to visit a buyer? I plan each of my sales missions to avoid major industry trade shows and holidays when decision makers are likely to be out of the office. The anticipated weather in each reason also plays a part in my decision making; I have no desire to be stuck in a snow storm or hurricane with an unhappy group of suppliers. I readily admit that I've chosen dates for sales missions so that I can enjoy a long weekend before or after the appointments, without guilt. 

With the help of Stephen and Fire Starter Brands, I have been able to connect (and contract) with key buyers that I have had difficulty establishing my own relationship with in the past. They have a proven track record in the tourism/hospitality industry and as a well established connector between buyers and sellers. I would highly recommend their services.
— Renee, The Ride

Who should we invite?

Fire Starter Brands offers two types of sales missions - public missions that are available for DMOs & suppliers from all over to join and private sales missions which are specifically contracted to include only suppliers from a specific destination or organization.

If you are planning a private mission, consider reaching out to partners that offer goods & services that compliment your own and can easily be packaged together by the travel planner into a product they can readily sell. It's far easier for a buyer to envision your product as part of a larger promotion.

If you're looking to join a sales mission that may already be scheduled, look for one where you will have a chance to present yourself as a resource within your region or product set. Fire Starter Brands works hard to invite a diverse group of suppliers and destination marketers to each of its programs. This gives each our partners a better opportunity to stand out and allows for those who may be less known to benefit from those with whom the buyers may already be working.

This is also a great time to talk about setting up the actual appointments. Long before we travel, I send a "save the date" card to buyers in the area so they know we're going to be around. I take time to personally call each of the buyers with my preliminary itinerary in front of me to confirm our visits and follow up each of these calls with an email, noting the anticipated time/date of our meeting and who will be joining me. Every buyer has unique needs and a list of top destinations they are already servicing. Having a partner like Fire Starter Brands arrange the appointments helps those second/third tier organizations get a foot in the door to offices they may have been shut out of previously. 

How do we get around?

The more time you spend in a vehicle with the same suppliers, the greater the odds that someone will go home in a body bag. Plan to meet with your mission partners for breakfast before hitting the road for your first appointment. There's no need to drive together to the target market unless you want to spend that much more time with those people when you're all exhausted, temperamental and a bit testy on your way home from the completed mission. 

When deciding what sort of transportation to use, I keep two things in mind - how many participants do we have and what buyers we'll be meeting. The overwhelming number of travel buyers represent small businesses that do not have conference rooms built to accommodate 10-20 people at a time. If there are more than 5-6 participants, I hire a motorcoach, sprinter or executive coach. These have enough room for us to conduct our meetings without crowding into a buyers' office. If there are just a few participants, I like to be sure we've got space to store everyone's luggage, give aways and some snacks comfortably. For these smaller groups, a large SUV works great!

What do I need to bring?

Your task on the mission is to show the buyer you care enough to visit their office and to learn from them. Keep it simple. Bring your business cards, a flyer noting the highlights of your product and something to take notes with. If you've got a really fun, memorable give-away item, those are great too but they're not necessary.

I have yet to run a sales mission where at least one participant did not get a sale while we were on the road. That said, the vast majority of sales that come from these missions happen long after we return home and the follow up is delivered. Bring your listening skills - take note of what the buyers need, what they are looking for, when they want to hear from you and what they love about their current vendors. 

Plan to follow up...

It's been said countless times that sales are won or lost on the sales person's ability to follow up. For each day traveled, I recommend that participants plan 2-3 days back in the office to deliver on the needs of the buyer we met. This may include sending personal thank you notes, delivering rates, creating new contracts, sharing suggested text & stock images, arranging site visits, etc. 

How do I get started?

If you're looking to build better relationships with tour operators and want to learn more about planning your own sales mission or joining one that I've got listed on the Fire Starter Brands calendar, give me a call at 646.736.1305 or request a complimentary consultation

About the Author...

stephen ekstrom.jpeg

Stephen Ekstrom is a well-recognized tourism marketing authority whose influence reaches over 500,000,000 travelers every year. He's been profiled by the New York Times and appeared on CBS, NBC and NY1. He is a trusted fixture in the travel trade and has served as a board member, expert panelist, committee chair, mentor and program facilitator. Fire Starter Brands, founded by Ekstrom in 2010, manages a network of nearly 5,500 opted-in global travel trade buyers, advising and assisting smart travel industry suppliers and destination marketers. Stephen currently lives in South Florida with his two dogs, Match & Rudy.