Fall Into the Gap's Strategy

IT'S BOUND TO HAPPEN. AS THE ECONOMY STARTS TO TAKE A DIP, CONSUMERS WILL once again proudly begin to demonstrate their savvy shopper skills and start soliciting you for discounts on your services. You may have customers walking in or calling to tell you that the agency down the street just offered them the same trip you did but for $300 less. Or, they'll say that another agent is willing to rebate her commission on the cruise they want to take, then they'll ask you if you will do the same. This is all in addition to their long-standing repertoire of, "but I just saw it online for $50 less." Ruthanne Terrero

I suggest that the response you give them is, "Have a nice trip." I would even wave goodbye as the door hits them on the way out. Why? Because when the economy turns south, it's not advisable to start taking on business that you wouldn't have wanted when things were good. You'll be working just as hard, but with less personal satisfaction and less financial return.

Take a note from how Gap, Inc. has handled its retail model. This is a company (which owns not only Gap but also Banana Republic and Old Navy) whose initial success was born of the brilliant concept that people want to wear nice jeans or khakis and spiffy tee shirts. The Gap brand was synonymous with the type of clothing that most Americans prefer to wear the most, but somehow they screwed that up along the way. They started focusing too heavily on the teen market, displaying tiny, trendy outfits that alienated their older customers, and for several seasons their colors seemed off, at least to me (I can recall seeing a high number of lime-green corduroy jackets in there one year). They just weren't getting it right until recently, when I was surprised to see that the company's overall finances had enjoyed a decent quarter. Why? Turns out its management has been controlling the amount of inventory they put on the shelves. As a result, they've reduced the number of markdowns they're taking on merchandise. In other words, Gap for once wasn't put in the position of trying to sell stuff, at a give-away price, that not many people wanted in the first place.

My guess is that this also creates a more pleasing shopping atmosphere for the customer, who now is able to focus on the new, full-priced merchandise in an uncluttered environment.

How Does This Affect You?

So, what's the takeway for travel agents? Control your image so that you're not appearing to give away products and services to your customers. Nothing looks worse than a fire sale. If a client questions how your price stacks up against other agencies', be ready to list the value of the services that you are providing. Value the business that you have already, and strive to retain it by delivering phenomenal service. Spend any extra time you have mining for new clients and encourage your colleagues to do the same. It's worth taking a few hours of your day to brainstorm for untapped markets. Get to know your staff personally a little bit more and explore whether they have links to market niches that you could be tapping into. If you have younger staff members, determine whether they have friends who are seeking to take an upscale vacation. Don't assume just because they're young that they don't have money.

Another word to the wise: If you're doing something right, give a shout out about it to your staff so that you don't lose sight of it, as Gap did with its initial concept of selling jeans. Don't let your best practices, which may come intuitively to you, fall by the wayside.