Suppliers certainly have the home-based agent community on their radar screens," says Joanie Ogg, president of NACTA. "The continued growth of the home-based agent community and the fact that their business represents high-yielding business to suppliers makes this trend only likely to grow."
Several recent developments on the supply side show how eager they are to reach out to this market. After years of refusing to acknowledge the Outside Sales Support Network TRUE identification number, last month Marriott International announced it would recognize both TRUE agents and those with TravelSavers identifications from the National Association of Commissioned Travel Agents. In addition, tour operator Sceptre Ireland—which sells only through travel agents—deepened its retail commitment in February by announcing a relationship with OSSN, allowing its member agents to apply for Emerald Partner status with the wholesaler.
Says Ciaran Barry, director of marketing and sales for Sceptre: "It's a win-win. A lot of home-based agents reached out to us because it's a 100 percent agent relationship. Consumers still come to us directly, but we push those out to agents."
But how do home-based agents reach out to those suppliers with whom they can achieve sales success?
Ogg has one answer: "I began what we call the Supplier Awareness Campaign back in 2003. The focus of the project is educating the supplier community about the home-based market and really drilling deep to help them better understand how to market to and service this growing group."
As a result of this move, says Ogg, "both Royal Caribbean Cruise Line and Celebrity initiated their focus on this market, and the results we see today are phenomenal. I spoke to their sales force and spent time consulting with their marketing and sales teams to help them move in this direction." RCCL and Celebrity were among the first suppliers to add a dedicated staff member to their teams to address the home-based market: Cris de Souza, home-based channel manager for Royal Caribbean International and Celebrity Cruises. What Do Agents Want?
According to Ogg, "the Globus and Cosmos family of brands was next, and I am scheduled to speak at Norwegian Cruise Line's sales meeting in Florida in April on this topic. Oceania was an early interested party, as well, and I worked with them to help them create their model for this group."
Alleigh Grieder, formerly home-based channel manager at the Globus Family of Brands, took on the role of director of sales and marketing for NACTA last month. Grieder says, "The hardest thing home-based agents face is the fact that suppliers don't have direct access to them, if they are working with a host agency. They connect to the host agency, but not one-on-one with agents. Globus wanted to reach out to home-based agents and work with them one-on-one to give them the support they need."
Grieder is quick to add, "Not that there's a problem with a host agency, because they have the relationship, but agents as individuals aren't getting brochures, they aren't getting called by a sales person, they have to get everything through a host. The relationship is through that intermediary."
Home-based agents can achieve a certain amount of success acting on their own. Says independent agent and business owner Diana Hechler, president of D. Travel Tours in Larchmont, NY: "I look for suppliers in a variety of ways. Shows like the Luxury Travel Expo have been great for introducing me to a quality supplier that might not have a huge marketing machine, but that offers a great product. I'm sending some clients to Russia this summer with a small company I learned about at the New York Luxury Show two years ago.
"I also find good suppliers through my contacts at NACTA. The list-serve has been very helpful for me. I have a partner in Vietnam and one in Thailand that I found that way and that I've been very pleased with."
But membership in an agency organization or host agency can make all the difference to a home-based agent seeking suppliers. Brent Hubele, vice president of supplier relations for Sabre Travel Network's Jurni and Nexion, says the biggest challenge home-based agents face in locating suppliers is "some suppliers have regulations about home-based visits, for security and other reasons. Suppliers can't just stop by with brochures."
At Nexion, "We say, if you are a home-based agent, you have to get out and into the community," says Hubele. "Successful home-based people spend very little time at home, [and] must reach out to district sales managers."
Adds Hubele: "We have to communicate to our suppliers who our most productive agents are. We facilitate meetings, hold supplier seminars in their areas and identify them in point-of-sale newsletters we send out. The solutions lie in making the connection for both sides." Hooking Up
One advantage for agents who work through a host agency is the aggregated point-of-sale, says Hubele. "A stand-alone person is using all different booking engines, Web sites and telephone numbers, which takes a lot of time. As a host, we have ways to add efficiency to that equation."
"The point of sale is fully aggregated—a one-stop shop. That's a big part of helping us understand the independent contractor's business," says Hubele. "On a monthly basis, we go in and look at their production in every area of the world. When we see an independent contractor is booking only cruises, tours or Alaska, you don't want to bother them with messages about the Galapagos. They have identified their niche market, and we can supply them with all the relevant suppliers."
Tom Harmon, senior vice president of communications and member relations for host agency Joystar, details the extensive support that an organization provides for its members, including conference calls, e-mail blasts and more.
"Our Wednesday and Thursday conference calls feature preferred suppliers, those that are fully committed to working with independent contractors," says Harmon. "We record each of the sessions and archive them in our Listen-On-Demand Library so members can play them back at any time. This resource is located within our corporate Intranet, which we call myJoystar. Resources
"In a typical week, members will receive five to 10 e-mails updating them on anything new at Joystar and within the supplier community and travel industry," he says. "All articles are published on the front page of myJoystar under Headline News and then archived for easy retrieval. In addition to updates, I send out two marketing pieces each week; the first focuses on vacation offerings, and the second, cruise specials."
Providing the Touchpoints
Michael Gross, president and CEO of Global Travel International, stresses how important it is for a home-based agent to join a host agency when it comes to reaching out to suppliers. "That sounds self-serving," he admits, "but let's say there are 200,000 home-based agents. It's virtually impossible for suppliers to reach them all. Most home-based agents won't be able to get high enough up on the food chain. A good host agency or a consortium provides a conduit."
GTI "provides a conduit for suppliers and agents to speak to each other," says Gross. "We do weekly conference calls with specific suppliers—one week it's Carnival, the next SuperClubs, etc. We provide training, motivation and opportunities to connect with suppliers and address concerns. This includes seminars, teleconferences, Webinars, newsletters and e-mails going out daily. At Global Travel, we have a dozen different touchpoints for home-based agents and suppliers."
But host agencies aren't the only organizations providing these touchpoints. Vacation.com helps home-based agents connect with the most desirable suppliers in a variety of ways. A home-based agent that generates enough revenue can become an individual member of the agency marketing organization. "We have some individual home-based agent members, but a lot don't want to meet minimum requirements for coverage. At a certain level, they are better off with a host," says Vacation.com President and CEO Dick Knodt. "If you are under $100,000, odds are you are better off working through a host." Vacation.com has become expert at hosting hosts, too.
The biggest challenge for home-based agents, says Knodt, is: "You have to segment it, think about which supplier best fits your customer. If I'm an agent with 100 customers, and I'm working with San Diego Country Club, I don't need mass merchandising vendors; I need a certain kind of vendor. Which host or marketing group has that kind of preferred list? Who is doing marketing for those particular vendors?
"You don't want to reach out to all of them. They all have a certain kind of customer—you have to match that up."
Agents also can take advantage of Vacation.com's offerings through their host agency. "Our value proposition is to support hosts in three areas, providing efficiencies of economies. There are 5.5 million names of travelers in our database. We protect it and segment it nine ways. We can match data for suppliers, so they get a higher return on investment. They achieve economies of scale for everyone in the food chain."
Vacation.com provides support through technology for all its members, whether it's a traditional agency, host agency or individual agent. "Any home-based agent that has a high-speed line can access any information Vacation.com has through AgentNet [a members-only extranet] from home or anywhere else," says Knodt. "They communicate this through a host agency or individually."
In addition, Vacation.com's educational options don't stop at business plans and marketing plans—they also help home-based agents make the most of search engines. "We are something of a matchmaker," says Knodt. "You can learn how to access supplier deals or marketing programs, you can access them via AgentNet at your desktop. On Agentnet there are a myriad of booking engines."
Vacation.com does all this without getting between the host and the agent. Says Knodt: "If you are working with a host, it's in addition to what they offer, it doesn't interfere. They couldn't possibly build what we have. It's all a question of scale. No individual agent or host agency can offer this kind of things."
But whether it's a direct relationship between supplier and home-based agent or a mediated marriage through a host agency, consortium or other agency organization, it's clear that the love affair between suppliers and independent retailers is just getting started and has what it takes to go the distance.
"Overall, I think that agents will see more and more suppliers coming on board to better understand and work with them," says Ogg. "It is important for suppliers to understand, however, the various types of home-based agents and hosts so they can service their accounts focusing on their specific needs."