As the industry continues to improve, travel agents find new ways to keep the momentum going.
While the entire travel industry is optimistic that the market is improving, the general mood is that we continue to deal with an insecure consumer still unwilling to loosen the purse strings. So what can agents do to make their business more certain in a still uncertain time? To answer that question, we reached out to the industry’s best, ranging from the newest batch of agents with fresh perspective to the experienced pros who have seen it all before.
In order to best serve today’s consumers, it’s important that agents can identify them. Today’s traveler uses savings as a point of pride, rather than extravagance. Consumers aim for their savings to outweigh their spending. They research every single purchase. As a seller of travel, you need to approach 2011 portraying travel as a reward, not as an entitlement.
Fresh Faces Weigh In
It’s no surprise that the younger contingency touted social networking as an essential element in their continued visibility to clients. The consistent contact dissolves the typical boundary between agents and clients fostering a more involved relationship, which ultimately leads to repeat business.
“I’m friends with most of my clients on Facebook so I try to keep current specials posted to let them know what is out there,” says Joanne Fegan of Enchanted Honeymoons. “I often send out postcards as well, especially over the holidays.”
Terrah Rominger of Legacy Travel echoed these sentiments as well, highlighting the importance of establishing an ongoing dialogue, as opposed to the cold click of the mouse on booking sites. “I will drop a line not only about offerings but to wish them ‘Happy Anniversary’ or ‘Happy Birthday’ as well. People are starting to get frustrated with the online booking sites and have found themselves using the traditional, reliable method of a good travel agent for their leisure needs.”
While the agents stressed the importance of traditional face-to-face time in securing ongoing business, carefully planned advertising also played a critical role.
“We’re putting out about the same amount of information but being very careful in where those dollars and efforts are going,” explains Michael Distler of Admiral Travel. “We recently launched a Jumbotron in Times Square featuring our escorted tours, everything that can’t be bought anywhere else.”
Distler explains that this conservative attitude toward funds also rippled across the clients’ budgets. “It’s about ‘experiential travel’ now,” he says. “People are more focused on a couple of defining moments within a trip. A feeling that, ‘we never could have done this on our own.’ Instead of taking three big trips, they focus on one and spend more time in that destination and delve even deeper. They want to know exactly where their money is going and what they can expect.”
Expectations can also be exceeded with the horizontal expansion of one’s business with a systematic partnering, especially with a well-known brand. Coupling your company with a household name not only offers an additional level of visibility, clout and clientele, but also establishes your agency as a leading source of information.
For instance, Admiral Travel works directly with the St. Regis Fractional Owners and the Starwood Preferred Elite guests, creating custom travel experiences around the globe by utilizing personal knowledge and insider access, says Distler. These types of partnerships showcase an agent’s expertise and offer guests invaluable information and services.
Although partnerships are vital in broadening an agency’s outreach to clients, agents must also continue to capitalize on their experience, anticipating everything from future destinations to recognizing their own niche value.
Fegan explains that 2011, if it continues on the trajectory marked by 2010, will show an increase in trips to Costa Rica, Iceland and more family vacations. “If you really want to stand out from the other agencies in your area you really need to be able to think outside the box. With the great marketing promotions that different resorts are putting out there these days, you would be crazy not to take advantage of them.”
“I think in today’s market, differentiation has and will continue to play an important role in an advisor’s success,” Distler agrees. “Ask yourself, ‘What is different about me that would lead a client to book with me instead of another advisor?’”
While the recession has certainly altered the industry, knowledgeable agents remain a steadfast component of successful travel. ”There are good, hard-working agents who have survived 9/11, the drug wars, the swine flu and all of the other media-filled ‘terrors,’” says Rominger. “We are excited to carry on with selling the new and wonderful.”
Sage Advice From Industry Veterans
To see what might happen in the future, we looked to some long-term agents who have survived downturns and trends in the past.
Valerie Wilson, founder, chairman and CEO of Valerie Wilson Travel, will be celebrating her 30th anniversary as an agent this year, and has seen the value of long-term investments in terms of technology and people. When the economy fell in 2008, she and her partners (who happen to be her daughters) looked into training the whole team—from agents to contractors to back office professionals. “We decided to really look at the company and see what our strengths and weaknesses are,” she recalls. They redesigned both their external website for consumers and the internal web system for employees to make communication easier all around. “We spent time, effort and money to improve,” she says.
Peter Friedman of Unique Travel has also been an agent for 30 years, and also appreciates the value of staying current in terms of trends and technology. “It should be a full-time life pursuit to keep yourself educated by traveling and reading every travel-related publication that you can,” he says. “Having knowledge that your clients do not possess is one of the best ways to develop client loyalty. I am constantly searching for new forms of travel, so that I can recommend something new to my clients who are well-traveled.”
He also sees the value of selling a higher-end product. “I do not lower the standard of the products I sell,” he says. “I find that maintaining a high quality level of product will earn me more money in a poor economy than trying to sell more budget items. The high end does not stop traveling.”
Nancy English of CWT Vacations has been an agent for 26 years, and agrees that education is key for staying visible in a recession. “I have availed myself of seminars, fam trips, destination classes, and the opportunity to take training with our company,” she says. “Being in an office with other folks who have been in the business as long or longer than I have is a learning opportunity in itself.”
Communicating with clients is also crucial, she adds, and sometimes that communication has to be creative. “One thing I hope to do in the near future is have a get-together for a long-time friend and client and invite the many people he has recommended me to that have become longtime clients as well.”
English is optimistic for the future of the industry, which she believes will rebound— “Perhaps not to pre-recession levels, but better than it has been,” she says. “Costa Rica and Belize are certainly rising stars, and cruising continues to be very popular. Egypt is also much more popular than in the past.”
Friedman also believes that sales will keep improving as long as the economy stays stable. “I find that there is a much larger demand for India and other exotic destinations that offer a multi-faceted experience,” he says. “The traveler of today wants to be involved, not just stand on the sideline watching a country go by. The experience tours—culinary, adventure, art and history—will be the growth end of the market.”
Wilson notes that the trend of last-minute bookings seems to be waning, and recommends that clients book their trips sooner than later. “A Disney Cruise ship is already sold out for March,” she says. “I’m talking to a family reunion of 10 people about booking something else, because it’s not available when the kids are on vacation. It’s good news for all of us, because it means people will make decisions farther out and make their deposits for trips. The affluent traveler doesn’t want to compromise on lifestyle, and part of that lifestyle is travel.”
Wilson acknowledges that plenty of situations can affect travelers’ confidence. As an example, she mentions Greece’s strikes this past summer. “We had people who were very concerned and canceled their trips,” she recalls. “I said, ‘I’m taking my family on a cruise out of Athens, and I’m still going.’ Yes, I was more cautious, but you can still go to the Greek islands or plan a cruise. You can still do this.” Her advice, she says, is to convince clients to make plans, and then reschedule if they don’t feel comfortable traveling. “There’s no way to have a crystal ball and know what’s going to happen,” she notes, “but people don’t want to live in a glass bubble. Thailand didn’t look great from March to June, but I was working on trips to Southeast Asia, and it did get better.”
What Does Your Consortium Say?
According to Lindsay Pearlman, executive vice president and general manager of Ensemble Travel Group, the best way to understand the future is to really understand the past. “The trends and issues we face now are the same issues that we were dealing with 20 to 30 years ago,” Pearlmen says. “It’s about engaging and building relationships and levering the current technology to help your customer.”
With today’s technology, time and distance have gone out the window. “An agent can now engage a customer when that client is hiking in the backwoods of Africa, and at no cost. At the end of the day, this is still a business about experience and how travel makes you feel. To succeed, the customer must trust the expertise that comes with a travel professional,” Pearlman adds.
Along these lines, Pearlman’s key to success is to become a specialist. “The role of the travel agent has become that of a consultant. I’d like to drop the word ‘agent’ entirely,” he says. “The idea of ‘agent’ assumes that this person is handling a transaction-based sale, as opposed to fulfilling travel needs based on knowledge and recommendations. Whatever vein you choose, make sure you know it front and back, whether it be honeymoon travel, food and wine, adventure, cruise—the list goes on.”
Michelle Morgan, president of Signature Travel Network, believes that staying ahead means going back to basics. “There is no magic formula. It is about solid customer service,” she says. “It’s not enough to wait for clients to call; you need to reach out to them and be proactive.” On the other hand, Morgan also believes that clients want to be able to access their agent at all times. Being wired 24/7, even if immediate response isn’t possible, is huge today, when technology has trained us to expect instantaneous relief. “Turn off that out-of-office automatic message feature unless you are on Mt. Everest,” she says.
The 2011 traveler has also come to expect personalized and customizable vacations. “Surprise and delight your clients with your personal recommended ‘extras,’” Morgan advises. Some examples include how a car and driver in St. Petersburg, Russia, will add to the vacation experience. Arranging special dinners at unique restaurants is also sure to keep your clients coming back for more.
It is important to learn about exotic locations and avoid the overplayed destinations. Morgan believes, “It’s easy for a client to arrange a vacation to Hawaii. But if you expand your horizons to become a specialist to Japan, Bali, South Africa, etc., travelers will seek your expertise.”
Steve Tracas, president of Vacation.com, tells us that positivity, creativity and aggressive planning are key in updating business plans for the New Year. Some of this creativity can come from differentiating yourself. For example, when booking cruises, Tracas says, “Take advantage of the many amenity departures available by booking your clients into one of hundreds of sailings that automatically provide shipboard credit, free specialty restaurant meals and prepaid gratuities.”
Targeting marketing is also key to getting ahead in the coming year “Provide relevant, timely messaging to your clients with a call to action back to your agency,” Tracas says.
One thing that the industry on the whole can look forward to is that the need for agents is increasing. Forrester’s research showed that although online activity is increasing, younger generations do not actually enjoy the process of booking online, and that more and more of these consumers would prefer to use a travel agent.
Indeed, the process of online booking and planning can become thoroughly confusing, even to the most tech-savvy generation. A surprising 22 percent of consumers say they would use a travel agent if they could find one — with the majority of these numbers coming from Generation Y (ages 18-34).
Clearly it is important to not let technology come between you and your customer. “Put your customer benefits at the forefront of anything you do with technology,” says Henry Hardeveldt, vice president of Forrester Research. Customers need to see context, and not just numbers.
At the same time, preparation for new channels is also key. Agents need to test out different entrants, which will undoubtedly change the way travel is distributed and sold. It is imperative to test and evaluate new methods, because some will have a dramatic change in the future.
“We know that from a pure dollar perspective, the travel sales volume is supposed to rise over the next five to 10 years,” Pearlman says. “If you think about the purchasing cycle, which is 12-18 months between vacation departures, we need to engage that customer at the different segments of the cycle. I think as an industry we have issues engaging customers between after they return from one trip until their next one.” Mastering this will further enhance and stabilize the relationship between agent and consumer.