Have a client who wants to take an Antarctic cruise on a small ship or a hot-air balloon ride over the Loire Valley, and have no clue how to handle the inquiry? Have no fear, Home-Based Travel Agent to the rescue. For newbies to the industry, this article will walk you through your scariest "Who do I call?," "What do I do?" moments. Seasoned vets should also take note: If you are scoping out a few new ways to find out about suppliers, you may learn a trick or two.
Host Agency How-Tos
As a home-based agent, you are pretty much out there by yourself. No need to be nervous: Affiliation with a host agency is one of the top ways to go to get support and to learn more about suppliers. (Note: see Home-Based Travel Agent's March issue for a list of top host agencies.)
Once you've joined a host agency, don't waste your money. One of the most basic mantras to remember in your burgeoning travel career is to take advantage of what is right in front of you. You pay to be a member of a host agency, so be sure to take advantage of all they have to offer. Look to your agency's web site for forums and programs, which can help you sift through information about vendors and get to the nuts-and-bolts truth about what they have to offer.
We've found that Nexion provides its agents with weekly "webinars," which are online, interactive audiovisual seminars by preferred suppliers. The webcasts can also be archived. In addition to the webinars, Nexion offers a three-day boot camp to get in-depth training, and their member kit also provides product information on preferred suppliers.
America's Vacation Center offers its travel agents a community forum where, among other things, agents can speak with each other online. You can also check out Home-Based Travel Agent's forum at www.homebasedta.com, which is also an ideal source for asking other agents questions about suppliers. Survival Guide
Montrose Travel, like other host agencies, has a list of preferred suppliers that its network agents can tap into. The agency has also modified the list to include information about which wholesalers and tour companies offer packages versus escorted tours.
In addition, cruise ship profiles can be found on Montrose Travel's private-labeled web sites as well as CLIA's web site. If a particular supplier is not on the list and an agent wants to know if they are reputable, he or she can submit a request to Montrose for information. Linda Farina, the owner of Denlin Travel in Parsippany, NJ, credits Montrose for keeping her on track when it comes to choosing suppliers.
"If you have a good host agency, you can feel comfortable about choosing suppliers," says Farina, who has been a home-based agent for a little more than two years. "Montrose has many preferred tour operators, and that's where I start—and ninety-nine to one hundred percent of the time, that's how I get what I need." If Farina can't find what she is looking for on Montrose's web site, she will go to online travel sites such as Expedia or Travelocity; however, she tends to only use these sites to compare pricing. Finally, if some obscure requests won't necessarily come up in a general search, she will go to a hotel's web site.
Consortia also often have preferred suppliers. Host agencies can be members of consortia, or if you're an outside agent with a brick-and-mortar agency, your agency might also be a member of a consortium. The consortium basically brings together buyers (agents and agencies) and sellers (suppliers). In return for the buyers to support the suppliers, the suppliers generally offer a financial incentive (higher commissions, etc.). Because of this relationship, the consortium management works hard to recommend reputable suppliers.
Cliff Notes for Agents
If you are an agent who takes joy in surfing the web, but wants to avoid the random search engine scavenger hunt, keep in mind the web site www.starserviceonline.com. This site, which markets itself to agents, is great for a third-party, objective review of a hotel—it might even become your most trusted source. The site also reviews cruise ships, and serves as a general travel reference guide. Sites with professional reviews from reputable publishers such as Fodor's and Frommer's can also be helpful.
Tour Operators 101
If you don't belong to a host agency, hate the wonderful world of web sites or pretty much just prefer to go straight to the source, the United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA) has stringent membership requirements, which helps ensure stability when you are researching a particular tour operator.
To be an active member of USTOA, tour operators have to meet several requirements before membership is allowed, including providing 16 references from reputable travel industry organizations, plus two from USTOA active members. The tour operator also must be in business for at least three years under the same ownership and/or management; must meet specific minimums in terms of passenger and/or sales volume; must carry a minimum of $1 million of professional travel agent/tour operator liability insurance, with worldwide coverage; and must participate in USTOA's Travelers Assistance Program, which among other things, stipulates that each active corporate USTOA member post a $1 million bond to help protect consumers in case of bankruptcy or other insolvency. A word of advice: keep in mind when choosing a vendor—be it tour operators, cruise lines or hotels—the number of years it's been in business, and don't be shy about asking for references.
Bob Whitley, USTOA president, says that the number-one thing to do is go to USTOA's web site, which offers links to the individual tour operators' web sites so you can easily learn more about them. In the Travel Trade Forum section of USTOA's site is a little gem known as the Travel Agents Room, which also provides information about tour operators as well as agent sales tools.
If you are interested in a supplier that is not part of USTOA, Whitley says that going to that tour operator's web site is always helpful; you can see what they have to say about themselves and if they offer any testimonials.
More Association Info
Other organizations can also help you with supplier questions. ASTA offers member-to-member networking in the Learning Communities section of its web site, which serves as a way for agents to learn from each other and share experiences they have had with vendors. Not sure which directory option to press when you call ASTA directly? Members of ASTA can contact the organization's Industry Affairs department, which handles questions about suppliers.
A CLIA member and president of World Voyager Vacations, Jerry Vaughn says selling the major brands is generally the way to go. Cruise lines that are a member of CLIA are a pretty safe bet, he says, so you don't need a lot of research to sell them—except to the extent of determining which lines your host agency has preferred supplier contracts with, which can provide higher commissions.
Also, Vaughn suggests that you pay close attention to industry news so you can identify potential problems a cruise line might be having and steer away from selling that line. Resources
Ask Friends or Schmooze With Industry Heavyweights
A more than 20-year veteran of the travel business, Randy Maged, a home-based agent in Potomac, MD, will only work with suppliers she trusts. This trust often manifests after a personal trip to a destination to meet with a certain property or tour operator with whom she isn't familiar. "I actually went to Brazil and Costa Rica to visit with tour operators I hadn't talked to before." If you can't ante up the cash to fly around the world and meet with suppliers, or just don't have the time, look to those around you for advice. They might have firsthand knowledge of a company, or at least point you in the right direction.
When visiting a supplier isn't an option for Maged, she relies on a trusted network of friends to give her insight into certain vendors. She also shares with friends and colleagues her particular experiences.
Extending your knowledge of friendly faces in the business can't hurt. Maged suggests getting in contact with well-known travel agents: the "people you always see in the news and read articles about." Sources quoting these people can usually provide their contact info.
Get Out and Network
It's important to meet suppliers face to face, so attending trade shows and conferences like Home-Based Travel Agent Expo, Luxury Travel Expo and cruise3sixty are great ways to not only meet other agents and share experiences, but also get to know suppliers.
Attending events hosted by suppliers and marketing organizations are also prime ways for agents to learn more about particular suppliers.
One such company, JDB Fine Hotels and Resorts, goes to each property and personally inspects member hotels to ensure that they meet certain standards.
The best advice JDB President Judy Baer would give to agents is to search a supplier's web site, get feedback from industry partners and read trade publications—like Home-Based Travel Agent!