Travel agents today have grown from advisors to website mavens and Internet marketers. Still, with estimates of repeat business at only between 20 and 30 percent, it is clear that home-based agents aren't taking advantage of the tech boom as much as they could.
Lee Rosen, president of Los Angeles-based TRAMS (www.trams.com), says the future of travel technology is about knowing your customers, particularly through databases. "Agents will need to have a more extensive travel history at their fingertips for each customer," he says. Still, Jack Mannix, president and CEO of New York-based Ensemble Travel Group (www.ensembletravel.com), sees a change in analytics on the horizon beyond what customer information you can collect on your own. "You'll be able to buy information to find out everything your customer is doing," he says. "They won't always offer up that they're a skiing nut, but if you know they've recently bought a new pair of skis, then you have a pretty good idea of what to market to them."
Rosen also believes travel technology will also be about how agents relate to each other. "Home-based agents don't have the water-cooler talk that can be incredibly beneficial for comparing notes," he points out. "Not everyone can be an expert on Italy, so wouldn't it be great to quickly have the answer from another agent on a question your client has? I also see agents making a community setting for groups. Let's say you are a bike enthusiast and have a group that likes to bike all over the world. By the agent setting up a place for them to [exchange information], it feeds into them coming up with other trips and using the agent to book them."
Karen Yeates, vice president of Internet business solutions for Marina del Rey, CA-based Signature Travel Network (www.signaturetravelnetwork.com), believes that appearing prominently on search engines is vital for agents. For example, if someone types your city and the word "agent" into a search engine, your company needs to come up in the first few pages, or the revenue is likely lost. Rosen believes video technology for agent sites will create stronger revenue as well. "Video webinars and conferences are a major value, so you'll see many more of these recorded to give to the client," he says. "The online sessions can be tens of thousands of dollars right now, but they continue to go down in price. A cruise night with a fun reception and people working the booths translates online fairly well when you bring in flash video."
Mannix says that agents will have to separate themselves from online consumer sites by being a one-stop shop. "This is a business that's not about where you're located anymore, it's about what you know," he says. "There will be extensive growth in blogging, so agents can be seen as a regular source of information, whether someone's booking a trip with them or not." Likewise, accessibility to the client will be a key factor. "There also should be a 'Call Me Now' button on the agent site for instant access to that agent."
A Better Book
Yeates says it's the booking process itself that may need the biggest technological improvement in the coming years. "We're getting away from online purchases somewhat because a number of travelers are getting frustrated with the process," she says. "If you try and book a cruise through the booking engine, 50 percent of the time you'll run into an error. It's confusing because there [are] so many structures of how the cruises are priced, so there's not one straightforward price. If I'm looking for this particular cabin, it doesn't account for the adjustments of the customer living in a certain state, or regional rates and senior rates. An agent finds it complex to shuffle through 10 to 20 rate codes to find the best price. Agents want it simple—not more training."
Trip Davis, president of TRX (www.trx.com), an Atlanta-based travel technology company, says tech improvements will be coming in the next few years for consistent processing on both the back end and front end. "Each office has a different environment based on different software and hardware, and you'll see a dedicated focus on tech standardization that's more efficient and web-based for agents," he says, and adds that high-speed Internet access can let an agent accomplish more from home. "That can include the availability to do the ticketing activities, use Voice Over IP for phone integration and have a better availability of product sets and services," he says. "As suppliers like airlines and hotels sell more directly to consumers, those transactions that go through an agent yield higher revenue for a supplier even though there may be higher distribution costs."
Web services allow suppliers' booking widgets to many more agents, says Davis, but he insists it will be on the agents to facilitate these relationships. "Home-based agents can operate globally and can interact in multiple channels, whether through Skype or instant messaging," he says. "They need to use posting and text messaging to totally transform customer interactions...The more you put yourself out there, the more chances you have to score a customer."