Two decades ago, Kevin Butler saw the need for a bank travel club at his community bank in Ardmore, Oklahoma. As the head of marketing and business development, he’s overseen a successful travel club that has contributed mightily to the bank’s success.

Leisure Group Travel: How’d you get started in bank travel?

Kevin Butler: We did not have a bank travel club and being in charge of marketing and business development, I thought it would benefit our bank. We hired a lady from another bank that had a travel club. She worked part-time for us and we offered 8-10 trips a year. I worked hand-and-hand with her, but she led all of the trips.

When she retired 11 years ago, the CEO came in and said, “We’re not going to rehire for her position, we’re just going to let you do that.” I went in head first and took the reins of our travel club. It was really good because I already knew a lot of our travelers. I had helped with the presentations and so forth, but I just didn’t go on very many of the trips.

LGT: What qualities did she pass down to you when you started this process?

KB: We lucked out because I didn’t know her before we hired her start our travel program, but she was a good fit for us. Every bank has its own culture and she fit our culture well and we meshed very well. I felt like she was genuine, and understood that we aren’t here to sell or push product.  We educate our customers. She had had an immediate travel group because travelers came over with her. That is how these travel clubs usually work; it’s a relationship formed with the travel coordinator.

Eagle Travel Club in Cuba

Cuba 2016

LGT: How has the last decade been running a bank travel club?

KB: Because of my other responsibilities at the bank, I had to gear the program back to a couple big trips a year. We are at the point now that when I offer a trip, before I even have a presentation, I’m having to call and say, “Can we get more space” because our trips are so popular. It’s a good problem to have, but it’s also a problem because I would like every trip to be available to our travel customer base. This past year we toured Iceland in June and took 38 people. We offered Christmas on the Danube and took 41.  We’ve got 45 scheduled to the Amalfi Coast in May.

LGT: Why does a bank sponsor travel programs?

KB: It’s a relationship-building opportunity. We’ve built this over time and we’ve really increased our customer base. We truly care about our customers and employees, and our travel club is a value-added service that we offer. Unfortunately, in the corporate world as banks get larger and larger, they lose that personal touch with their customers. That is why I’ve been with this bank for 27 years because that’s who we are and how we operate.

Group Christmas Cruise on the Daube

Group Christmas on the Daube 2019

LGT: What are some of the questions community banks should be asking before starting a program?

KB: Number one, what is their goal? Are they doing this as an income generator? You can generate income from this. That’s not our primary mission, but of course I would like to make at least breakeven with the program. Are they offering this as a loyalty program?  If so, then it is something more unique that they can offer their customers that most banks don’t.

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The CEO has to believe in the program, and you have to get the right travel coordinator for that travel club. I think sometimes it’s hard to find that right person to fill those shoes. Luckily, when I stepped into the role, our travel club was already established.  I was able to learn from the previous coordinator and watch the way she did things, so I had a mentor help me transition into it.

We have countless customers that bank with us because we have a travel club and it’s the reason that they opened their accounts with us. Some of these are very large depositors.

Bank Travel Club in Iceland

Kevin Butler and his group in Iceland

LGT: Are most of your trips are international?

KB: It depends on where our travelers want to go. I poll my travel club members and try to offer the destinations they’ve asked for. We offer international and domestic trips. I have some travelers that aren’t interested in international travel. Overall, the majority of my repeat travelers do want to travel internationally, so that’s where we’ve mainly been focusing.

I am working on a trip this summer called “Twelve Countries Without a Passport.” It’s really a cool concept. The CVB came up with this because they have multiple cultural groups in their community. They put a package together so you don’t have to leave the United States, but you get to experience many different cultures and food.

LGT: Who are your preferred tour operators?

KB: We mix it up a little and do some different things, but I do use Collette a lot. We’re to the point that when we don’t use Collette, clients will say, “Oh this isn’t Collette.” I will explain that we found a better itinerary or whatever the reason is, and they understand because they trust our judgement. They know and trust us.

Our travelers know that we’re never going to intentionally offer a bad trip, use a company that isn’t reputable or put us in a situation where we are in harm in any way. When unforeseen things happen, which they do in travel—flights are delayed and all these things can happen that are totally out of our control. I wish I could fix it, but I usually can’t.  But when unforeseen things do happen, I call it added excitement. It’s not a problem or an issue. I’ll say, “We had some added excitement on this trip”. We just have to go with it because we really don’t have a choice.

I think communication is the key to everything, period, so I’m not going to blow smoke. I’m going to tell it like it is, but it doesn’t have to be negative either.  People just need to understand when you are traveling there are things that are out of our control. Things happen and, knock on wood, I’ve never had any major illness or catastrophe with a traveler. We’ve had ambulance calls, falls with breaks and me spending hours in the hospital with them. Things happen, but we handle it and we move forward.

LGT: Is there any advice you would give someone who is maybe struggling or just starting out?

Kevin Butler Eagle Travel Club

Kevin Butler, Rangarping eystra Iceland 2019

KB: I think it goes back to relationships and your customers feeling comfortable. I know there are some banks out there that switch people around, one time this person goes on the trip and then next time another person goes on the trip. There isn’t one coordinator leading every trip.  I think they are missing the boat if they operating like that because people take comfort in knowing “their” coordinator/group leader is at the helm.

It’s not that other helpers can’t go along. Because our groups are usually large, we have more than me on the trip to help. But it’s getting back to that comfort zone and that relationship.  Our travelers know I genuinely care and if “added excitement” happens,  I’m going to take care of it. There is security and safety and fun!

Also, don’t overwhelm your travelers with too many options or trips at one time.  Having a presentation highlighting more that two destinations just dilutes the excitement and confuses them.  Build the excitement of your specific destination and they will be ready to go!