NETWORKING AND RELATIONSHIP BUILDING were the orders of the day at the second annual Home-Based Travel Agent Expo & Conference held this month at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. This year, participants had the option of also attending the ninth annual Luxury Travel Expo (see From the Editor), which was held concurrently, with the seminars and trade show floors of the two Vegas Travel Week events only steps away from each other.
During the welcome and keynote presentations, Kerry J. Cannon, Jr., group publisher of Travel Agent, noted that the travel agency community has been receiving great press of late, from the "Happy Returns for Travel Agents" feature in The New York Times, about clients returning to agents after being frustrated booking travel on the Internet, to a segment on CBS' The Early Show about how travel agents are experiencing a resurgence because consumers are discovering they dislike booking their own travel. A recent story in Smart Money magazine also focused on how travel agents are staging a comeback.
"Finally, you're getting some respect again!" said Cannon, who also pointed to a report by Forrester Research that indicated that the number of travelers in the U.S. who used the Internet to research and buy travel fell 9 percent from 2005 to 2007. Forrester began tracking Internet spending 10 years ago, and this is the first time that the travel category has lost online shoppers. Cannon noted that Forrester's online travel analyst, Henry Harteveldt, said that these findings are "a wake-up call for the industry" and that "customers are tired of spending two or three hours trying to find the airline or hotel or vacation package that meets their needs."
"I think we in the travel agency world have been saying this for a while," Cannon told the Home-Based Travel Agent Expo audience. "The Internet is no longer the bogeyman, and clearly it has not spelled the end of travel agents. It is an amazing tool that has made your job easier, especially for home-based travel agents who don't always have the resources of a big brick-and-mortar shop," he continued. "Clients come to you with a lot of the research already done, or at least narrowed down, and you then add your expertise, experience, advice, accountability and your cell phone number to call at odd hours of the night."
Michael Drever, president/CEO of Expedia CruiseShipCenters, predicted a bright future for home-based agents. After outlining the maturation of the baby boomer market, he declared, "Luxury travel will go through the roof. These trips won't be booked over the Internet—it will be about service rather than price."
Keys to Success
Debbie Maier, vice president of sales and marketing for SMART Travel Technologies and Mailpound, pinpointed two keys in achieving success: building relationships with preferred suppliers and turning a customer with an inquiry into a lifelong client by emphasizing speed of response and follow-up.
Another attendee spoke about cultivating relationships with clients. "Money's not the driver that gets you out of bed in the morning," said David Speakman, chairman and founder of Travel Counsellors. "It's not about the money. Do the right thing by somebody and the money flows." Speakman advised agents to get close and relate to their customer rather than viewing the whole process as a transaction. "They want to trust you; they want a trusted friend," he said.
On the trade show floor, Sabre Travel Network demonstrated enhancements to Sabre Cruises that improve online cruise shopping capabilities, allow agents to book add-ons like air and insurance, and establish connectivity between the booking and the CRM tools.
This year, the Home-Based Travel Agent Expo & Conference partnered with The Travel Institute. Scott Ahlsmith, chairman of The Travel Institute and vice president of Virtuoso's Global Network Solutions, reiterated the encouraging news Cannon had reported: "Online bookings are down 9 percent...this is the first time we've seen a decline in customers booking online."
One agent spoke about the support he got from The Travel Institute early in his travel career. "When I came to America from Russia 12 years ago, I had a choice of teaching English, opening a restaurant or going into travel," said Alex Acherkan, owner of FareDeals, Inc. in Greenwood Village, CO. "I chose travel and sought out serious education, which I found with The Travel Institute." Acherkan transitioned to a home-based agency three months ago. "People expect me to be selling travel to Russia. Instead, I've concentrated on corporate travel, and 90 percent of my bookings are corporate—my largest group booking was 4,000 people."