This week's MAC Chat features our interview with MailPound's October MVP, Harini Narasimhan of American Express Travel.
Why did you decide to become involved in the travel industry and were you in a different industry prior?
My degree is in journalism and English and for many years I was an ESL teacher. It was a very rewarding career and worked great when my kids were young. During this time, I was also able to do outside sales for leisure travel for my friends and family.
Currently my career with American Express Business Travel allows me to continue my passion for helping others in my work life. I do a lot of volunteer work in my personal life and have always carried my passion into my work life. After all, we spend the bulk of our waking hours at work five days a week and with this job, I have the opportunity to help someone every hour, every day.
If a client is stranded in an airport, or sick while travelling or any one of a million scenarios that occur daily- with every action, there’s an opportunity to use my knowledge to help out which gives me tremendous job satisfaction. Take for example- by selling preferred vendors, I am enabling my employer and vendors to build market share and prosper. In my travel career spanning over 28 years, I have evacuated people, helped doctors reach remote areas, arranged for transportation of remains, coordinated large, fun reunions, and met people of various temperaments.
Some people I meet are so unhappy in their jobs and only believe that being a doctor, nurse or work in the medical field is the only way to help others.
One can help others in any field of work if one dedicates every action into the act of helping. It does not have to be a dramatic gesture.
I took early retirement from work 4 years ago and was at home. One night, I got a call at 2 am from a close friend whose dad was dying in India. I felt so helpless, not being able to help out (no Sabre set at home after retirement) though I had the travel knowledge! At 5am PT, I called my wholesaler on the East Coast, and got my friend on a flight at 9am PT. He was very grateful and managed to reach Chennai and see his dad before he passed on.
At that moment, I decided to get back to work in the travel business since I realized that I could still continue to help others in this field. In fact, my salary helps me with all my volunteer work - which makes it a win-win situation!
Knowledge is only good if one shares it and uses it to help others.
What was the biggest obstacle (if any) that you had to overcome in the beginning of your career as a travel professional?
Since I started with outside sales and leisure bookings, finding clients was a challenge initially. Then finding the time to research each detail for custom trips became a challenge- since I did still have a full time job as an ESL teacher!
But the biggest hurdle I faced was separating work from my social life. Every friend was a client, and conversations at social or religious events would invariably turn to business with questions like” So, what is the best airfare to xxxx- we are thinking of going there in xxxx “and I had to learn how to gently maneuver my way out of making it the focus of our conversation!!!!
What is the best marketing technique that you use to reach your clients and how do you get them to become repeat clients?
I used to write a chatty style newsletter which my clients looked forward to every week- and I could spotlight the item with the best discounts and commissions (remember those days when we got commission!!!)
Currently, in this internet age, we have to be “Consultants” not order takers. To maintain clients, we stick to good old fashioned excellent customer service - and making our team indispensableJ.
What is the most challenging aspect of this industry for you?
* I also believe that while "online" is definitely the cheaper channel for travelers, it does not yield the cheapest product, nor the best value. Clients tend to make mistakes on self booking tools and ask us to fix the mess!
* Staying current in an internet frenzied world.
* We need to grow enough young talent to replace the specialized counselors in the industry.
What do you enjoy the most about this industry and what is your best advice for travel agents just beginning their career?
With careful analysis, and after trying out both leisure and business travel, I consciously chose the path for business travel. The fact that corporate travel is unpredictable and not by choice (unlike leisure trips) is a challenge I really enjoy. I tend to utilize many tools and reports available at American Express to make a positive impact on a person’s day by ensuring a smooth trip.
My best advice to the newcomers in this industry is to take time to figure out whether you like leisure or corporate travel. Drill down to the various aspects/niche markets/specialties and build your future on the aspect you really enjoy. Then focus your energy in that direction. When you enjoy your job, it reflects in your demeanor and voice and the enthusiasm you project is the best sales tool you can find!
To every newcomer who is coming into the travel business for the glamour or the free perks, I would like to say:
“Come for the tremendous job satisfaction you will get from helping others every day".