Agency consortia, networks and franchise groups continue to provide professional agents and industry suppliers with indispensible support that adds to their profitability, John Werner, President and Chief Operating Officer of MAST Travel Network told Travel Agent in an interview.
“Suppliers and agents benefit from the economies of scale that consortia deliver as well as technology, training and marketing support basic to survival in a tough selling environment,” Werner said. “Professional agents need all the help they can get to deliver and communicate value to clients.”
Werner, an industry veteran, sees MAST members closing out 2010 with decent sales results, despite the economic downturn. Most are optimistic about a sustained recovery, while MAST itself has enjoyed sustained growth to just nearly 200 member agencies up from 175 in 2008. And, with an estimated $700 million in sales, MAST itself will remain a powerhouse in the Midwest region.
Werner, who is marking his tenth year leading MAST, attributes much of MAST’s success to loyal agency support for MAST’s programs as well as strong supplier participation. MAST operates in 10 states and has three membership levels to accommodate varied agent needs. Founded in 1969, MAST will be marking its 42nd year in 2011. “MAST has proven its value over the years. Our membership retention rate is solid despite ownership changes. Many retirement-aged agency owners sell to trusted employees.”
MAST member benefits are extensive and range from competitive point of sale commissions, override sharing and incentives for meeting MAST and supplier goals, and marketing programs. Education and training opportunities also continue to expand.
MAST agencies are primarily brick and mortar store-front agencies but some agencies have moved to home offices, Werner says. “MAST members have strong community roots and solid relations with their customer base.” Most are small -$1 to $3 million in sales - but some are much larger with sales greater than $10 million.
Changes in technology remain a key challenge as MAST members seek to achieve the productivity and performance gains that technology offers. Most members use TRAMS Back Office and Client Base. “New technologies including social media offer real advantages but challenge agents who must master the tools.”
MAST members invest heavily in education and training. In addition to annual sales meetings and conferences, MAST offers weekly webinars and one-day training events, Werner notes. Webinars cover everything from agency sales training to supplier product updates.
“Suppliers have turned to MAST, and other agency groups, because we deliver cost effective results. There is more accountability for results and more productivity goals, but at the same time greater rewards for agencies that perform well. Suppliers are themselves under cost pressures but can enjoy economies of scale when working with agency consortia and networks.”
Key member concerns include competition from the internet and communicating the value of travel agents to clients. “I know MAST members aren’t alone in this but we as an industry must do a better job of demonstrating the value of our knowledge and expertise. We advise our agents how to articulate their value and make clients aware of how their services are vital to ensuring a more satisfying travel experience. This is particularly challenging with so much information at consumer’s fingertips via the Internet.”
Werner believes that the past year has once-again shown the value of agents, noting the service agents’ offer in an emergency such as the volcanic ash crisis in Europe, the earthquakes in Chile and Haiti and hurricanes in the Caribbean. “The professional travel agent brings real expertise that is invaluable to clients.”
He also sees agency consortia, franchise groups and networks delivering value to agency members. “Agency marketing groups are now a respected, integral part of the distribution system. They offer agents value for modest investments and strong marketing, education and technology programs. But agents must get involved in the programs and use the full range of tools available to them.”
“Essentially MAST does on a cost effective basis what agents could not afford to do alone. It’s a formula that has worked, and will continue to work, Werner said.