I WAS AWAKENED TO THE BENEFITS OF USING A TRAVEL AGENT WHEN I GOT STUCK IN MEXICO, thanks to a snowstorm in New York. After spending six hours on the phone, the best any airline reservationist could do was a flight three days after my scheduled departure. I was exasperated, and vowed that from then on I would never board another plane without my Travel Agent Rolodex.
I expect it's experiences similar to mine that have led to the 9 percent drop over the last two years in U.S. consumers using the Internet to research and buy travel, according to an October report by Forrester Research. Our publisher, Kerry J. Cannon Jr., touted this news in his publisher's letter in the November 26 issue. "One of the main reasons cited for the drop-off in online booking is that the travel web sites are failing to sell the way people want to buy," he wrote, later adding, "No web site has yet to figure out the right algorithms and database calculations that come close to the human factor offered by an experienced, well-traveled, professional travel agent."
He's right. (And I'm not just saying that because he's my boss.) Yet it would be careless to let this good news go to our heads. The Internet certainly isn't going away, which means that you need to combine your traditional business practices—the questioning and the listening Kerry also spoke of—with some of the really exciting cutting-edge advances that are going on in the world of travel technology right now, particularly in the realm of social media enabling the formation of online communities.
In "The 2007 Travel Marketer's Guide to Social Media and Social Networks: The Dawn of Customer Engagement and Rise of Consumer Constellations," published by the Travel Industry Association and HSMAI Foundation, Cindy Estis Green wrote that social networking is all about customer engagement that can help develop and deepen relationships. "The door is open for travel marketers to join in the conversation with very productive results," Green says. "This conversation is not limited to management responses to consumer reviews. The toolkit is robust and growing."
A few of your colleagues already have opened up that toolbox. Earlier this year, Vicki Freed, Carnival Corp.'s senior vice president of sales and marketing, launched her blog, VickiLovesTravelAgents.com. In it, she writes about Carnival's latest promotions, shares guest comments and asks agents for feedback on how Carnival is doing. Freed says her blog so far has been well received, and she takes the time to respond to suggestions or questions posted in the comment section.
STA Travel is attempting to bring its online community closer by joining Second Life, a virtual world that operates like the real world. A user creates an online likeness of him or herself, called an avatar, and then interacts with other users. It is here that STA has established a virtual office and created "Globetrekker Bob," a virtual, yet real, full-time employee who is available to talk about and sell travel. Through Bob (who does earn commission), STA is able to track how many clients it lands through its existence on Second Life.
Many agents who once shunned the Internet as the enemy are now realizing the importance of online tools. At a recent American Express conference, Philip Wolf, CEO of PhoCusWright, gave an invigorating speech about the importance of social media. Afterward, the agents I talked to couldn't wait to get home and start a blog or create a MySpace page. There was no fear of the unknown; instead, excitement was palpable.
In the TIA/HSMAI report, Green wrote, "The tools and approach are accessible to a small hotel or destination, as well as to international brands and global organizations. And the use of social media is not limited in any way to just upscale travelers or to those twentysomething Gen-Yers or Millennials. Now is the time for the travel industry to dive in, engage their customers and reap the benefits of these relationships." It's good to know that some of you are doing just that, even as travelers begin to leave the web behind and return to booking through agents.