Last updated January 2, 2024
There’s one tool that every travel advisor should have in their marketing toolbox. I’m not saying that without it the world will end or you’re guaranteed to fail if you don’t have it.
I am saying there will probably come a time that you’ll look back and, if you haven’t put it in your toolbox, you’ll think “if only I’d...”.
What’s that tool?
Your email list.
Yep, that’s right. In a time when social media seems to reign supreme, when you hear about why you need to be on Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram and Tiktok, and you're told to start a Facebook group and have a blog, email list building and email marketing is still vital.
Why is that?
Your email list, and each subscriber name on it, is yours.
You’ve probably heard the phrase “you shouldn’t build a house on another man’s property”. That goes for digital property as well.
You don’t own Instagram, you rent it. When Instagram stops being “the place to be” people will jump to the next platform. They won’t delete their accounts, they’ll simply move on.
If you’ve built a following of thousands of followers on Instagram, what happens when the next big platform comes along?
Think about why Facebook (now Meta) bought Instagram in the first place. They knew that Instagram was beating Facebook. Facebook was becoming obsolete, the place where everyone’s mom or grandma hangs out. It was well on its way to becoming this generation’s My Space.
Remember that platform? The one with 115 million users in 2008? Once Facebook came along, My Space pretty much ceased to exist.
Actually, My Space experienced a sudden resurgence in 2015. Not because of anything they did, and not because people suddenly wanted to use the platform again.
Nope, it was because of Instagram.
When Throwback Thursday became a thing on Instagram, My Space suddenly experienced a 575% increase in traffic, with the majority of it being on Thursdays. All that their massive social media platform had become good for was being a photo repository that people accessed once a week to repost on another social media platform.
How many of those people remembered their passwords to My Space? Probably not very many, unless they use the same password everywhere.
But they were still able to get into their accounts for one simple reason. Their login was tied to an email address, and they could use that email address to reset their account access.
Even though they had stopped using My Space, most users still had the same email address. They had the same email address when they switched to Facebook, and when they opened their Instagram accounts. That’s why when Facebook purchased Instagram, it wasn’t the end of the world to pair up all those Instagram and Facebook accounts.
Because even though people don’t hesitate to change social media platforms, they rarely change their email addresses.
They move, they change jobs, they get married and have kids, but that email address usually stays the same. It’s simply too much hassle to change an email address, because it’s everywhere.
Anyone you’ve ever wanted to hear from, from crazy Aunt Betty to your college roommate, can contact you at that email address. If you change it you have to change it everywhere, and who has time for that!
Lets start with the basics. What is an email list?
An email list is simply the list of names and email addresses of people who have asked to hear from you. They can be past clients, people who sign up through a form or landing page, or people who download a free opt-in or lead generator that you create.
In exchange for their email, you provide them with something of value, ideally on a weekly basis. It can be travel information and ideas, a new blog post, sample itineraries, advanced notice of supplier sales or new itineraries that suppliers are releasing, or anything else you can think of.
It should be something that would be valuable to your ideal client and would make them want to open those emails.
An email subscriber won't open every email you send. But if you provide valuable, well researched, informative content that is unique and interesting to them, they’ll stay engaged. If you send them content that isn’t those things, they’ll unsubscribe.
It’s as simple as that.
Why you need an email list:
1. You can stay connected with potential clients
Having someone’s email address gives you the ability to stay connected with them for years. Since email addresses are rarely changed, you can have a potential customer on your mailing list until they are ready to engage your services.
Let’s say a new subscriber just joined your email list. She’s a mom, with a teenager in high school, and isn’t in a place right now to take a big trip. But she loves to travel, and wants to receive the travel related blog posts or articles you publish.
Two years down the road, that teenager is graduating from high school. Suddenly mom realizes that this may be their last chance to take that family trip they’ve considered. And there you are, in her inbox, like you have been every week for the last two years.
But the difference this time is that she’s ready to buy. All she needs to do is reply to your email and ask you to help plan that amazing family trip.
Did you pursue her for two years asking for a sale? No. All you did was show up. When she was ready, you were there.
That’s the power of an email list.
2. You own your list.
You don’t own your social media accounts. You don’t own Google, Bing, or any other search engine. You may do your best with search engine optimization (SEO), but you don’t decide if your website shows up in search results.
What you do own is your email list. You decide what you send and when you send it, and as long as you provide good content that is relevant to your audience, they’ll open it. Not everyone will open every email, but with consistency and quality you’ll nurture an engaged email list.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t grow your presence on social media or work on your SEO. It means that you shouldn’t do those things at the expense of your email list.
You should have an easy way for your website visitors to join your list. On social media you should point people to someplace where they can join your list.
As long as they take the one simple action of providing their email address, you own that connection with them.
3. Email is personal
You have an event coming up next week and you’ve partnered with the BDM from your favorite river cruise line to try and sell some Christmas Market river cruises for next year. You want people in your local area to come, and you need to get an invite out.
You can post the information on social media, and a couple people may show up. But it’s unlikely that you’ll get much traction.
But if you have an email list of local people who have the time and financial means to take a Christmas river cruise, you can send an email directly to them.
This isn’t an impersonal, mass market social media post. It’s a personal invitation, from you to them, that will be perceived very differently by the recipient. It can contain the exact same information that a social media post would, but the email gets their attention in a way that a social media post simply can’t.
Plus, you decide when they see that email. If you post something on social media, you have no idea when or if it will be delivered. Facebook or Instagram could decide to show it to them today, in two days, or never.
The email will show up in their inbox when you want it to. If you decide to send it today at 6pm, it will arrive today at 6pm. Whether or not they open it and read it is up to them, but you know it was sent, and it was personalized to them.
4. You can section or segment your list
Some of your clients and prospects are more interested in some topics, locations, or types of travel than others. If some of your clients have small children, others are retirees with higher net worth and lots of time to travel, and others are only interested in specific destinations, you can tag them in your email marketing software and use that to send targeted emails.
Most likely families with small children won’t be able to take a 150-night world cruise. If you’re trying to sell one, wouldn’t it be easier if you could send an email only to the people who are the most likely to make that purchase?
With a segmented email list, you can have those people tagged and only send that specific email to those individuals. It’s not that you’re excluding others, but you don’t want to fill their inboxes with offers they simply wouldn’t find value in.
Destinations work the same way. If you segment your list by travel style, you know you won’t want to send an email like “Things to do this fall in New York” to people who hate big cities. Or send “The 5 best beach resorts in the Caribbean” to travelers who have no interest in beach vacations.
5. Email is private
It’s easy for people to choose not to engage on social media because it’s too public. It can feel like the equivalent of raising your hand in class and the teacher not seeing you. Remember that feeling?
We’ve all seen posts where someone asks a question, but the business doesn’t see it or doesn’t respond. It’s left hanging out there in the comments. It can leave people wondering if the business cares at all, or if they just ignore questions from clients and prospects.
It’s completely different when you see a business that responds to any questions with “thank you for bringing that to our attention, we’ve sent you a direct message” or “thanks for your question, we’ve sent you a DM to continue the conversation”. The conversation has become private, but everyone who sees it knows it’s been acknowledged.
Email, on the other hand, is private from the start. People who will never speak up on social media but are on your email list now have a private, personal way to reach you. No one is left hanging as long as you reply back to their email in a timely manner.
What you need to start growing your email list
Getting started with email marketing doesn't have to be complicated. You only need four things.
1. An email marketing service
An email marketing service makes it easy to send emails to all or part of your list. These services allow you to schedule your emails in advance, which helps with consistency, and should also allow you to tag or segment your subscriber list as you see appropriate.
There are plenty of options out there, from free to expensive. My personal favorite is ConvertKit, it’s what I use and what I recommend to travel agents and travel advisors who don’t currently use an email marketing service.
Other popular services include MailChimp, Constant Contact, and ActiveCampaign, among others.
Whichever service you choose, make sure they are intuitive to you. It should be easy for you to create and send emails, manage your subscribers, and review data and analytics to see what’s working and what’s not.
If sending email through a marketing provider is a struggle, you won’t keep doing it. Take advantage of free trials that are offered and find the one that works for you.
Whatever you do, don’t send your emails from your regular email account using the “bcc” line. That’s an easy way to get them marked as spam, and it will impact the overall deliverability of all the email you send. If budget is an issue, use a provider that has a free plan and then upgrade when you’re able.
You must have people’s permission to send marketing emails to them. Spamming people is illegal, and can have negative repercussions for your business. At a minimum it will negatively impact your sender reputation and email deliverability.
Don’t purchase an email list thinking it is a shortcut to building your list. Good email lists are never for sale, and since you haven’t asked those people for permission to email them it is considered spam.
Email marketing services have specific language in their terms and conditions to prohibit the use of purchased lists. If you use one you’re in violation of those terms, and your email marketing provider can close your account.
3. A website or landing page
You’ll need someplace for people to go to sign up for your list. Whether it’s an embedded form or a pop-up on your website or a specific landing page, it has to live somewhere.
One of the things I like about ConvertKit is that you can create both forms and landing pages within your ConvertKit account. If you have a custom website you can integrate their forms into it, and if you don’t have a full website yet you can use a landing page or form while you get your website up and running.
4. An opt-in or lead generator
Someone who gives you their email address is giving you something valuable. They’re giving you direct access to their time and attention, and you need something to offer them in exchange.
Whether you call it a freebie, an opt-in, a lead gen, or something else, they all serve the same purpose. They provide something of value for a new subscriber who joins your email list.
You’ll want to make sure that your lead generator is something your ideal client would want. It can be a PDF download, like a guide to a specific location. If you’ve been writing blogs or articles for a while and there’s one that resonated well with your audience, you can reformat it into a PDF and offer that.
Quizzes also make excellent opt-ins. Something like “Where to go for your next vacation” or “Discover your travel personality” that provides customized results based on their answers.
The important thing with quizzes is to make sure they’re short (4-7 questions) and entertaining or informative and the results make sense based on the answers they give to the questions you ask.
The bottom line: Travel email marketing
Building an email list isn’t difficult, but it does take time. The most frequent thing I hear from people who have waited to start building their list is “I wish I’d started sooner.”
While it can feel like one more thing you have to do, an email list will serve your business and is well worth the time and effort it takes to build and nurture it.