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Getting "Phocused"

November 21, 2008 By: Eric Butterman


The PhocusWright Conference in Hollywood has a feeling to it which can only be described as hopeful nervousness. Clearly the crowd is thrilled by the falling oil prices’ possible effect on airline prices, but not what’s brought it on— the plunging economy. Still, many point out how many opportunities abound for travel agents to get in on non-traditional items.

At the vacation rental panel, several speakers noted that there was hardly an awareness of their sector even though rentals can easily run into five figures and, therefore, put extra money in travel agents' pockets on any decent commission. Douglas Quinby, senior analyst for PhocusWright, reflected this by stating that rentals represented only 8 percent of the total U.S. travel market. Quinby also noted that agents also have to open themselves up more to the money-conscious traveler. “Americans still love to travel but they’re waiting to find out what’s going to happen with the economy,” he said. “They’ll still go on a vacation, but instead of the trip to Mexico it may be a destination they can drive to. Agents need to see that there are many products they can sell them for those kind of trips, too.”

Chatting with Rod Cuthbert, CEO of Viator, a travel activities booking company, he couldn’t help but express his continued disappointment at agents not promoting activities as much as air and hotel. “Nobody says they had an amazing seat on Delta and that made the trip,” he jokes. “They talk about the exciting helicopter trip they took over a scenic view. We’re handing out commissions through ARC on items costing thousands and agents aren’t being aggressive enough to suggest them to their clients. That has nothing to do with a bad economy— that’s just failing to take advantage.”

Sam Gilliland, CEO of Sabre, showed concern at the rise of flight costs in his speech, noting a National Business Travel Association study found that domestic business trips cost $175 more than it did a year prior. But, at the same time, he thought there was still room for investment by the Southlake, TX-based GDS, albeit conservatively.

Joe Romans, vice president of sales for Relevex, a travel technology company, felt very little optimism, however, believing the drop in travel revenue would be double what most projections are. “It’s up to the agent to educate themselves on every aspect of their business or they’re not going to survive,” he says. “They have to utilize CRM like never before, going to their customers with trips instead of waiting for them to always initiate it. Customers are putting out clues about what they’ll buy. It may be they always go somewhere for their birthday or some other trend—the agent needs to send them ideas months before so it shows they’re working for them.” He let his eyes dart around the exhibitor room for a moment before they came squarely back on a last thought for the conversation. “People are putting on a brave face but the next year’s not going to be pretty.”


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