Good websites are at the center of many successful agents marketing and client service programs, Brian Tan, founder and CEO of the award winning consumer website www.Zicasso.com says, urging travel agents to develop and maintain strong, appealing websites to compete online.
Tan urges travel agents – including home-based independents -to be clear about their market strategy and know what markets they are targeting. The website strategy should support the agents overall marketing plan - including content that meets the agents key goals.
In addition to offering specific program for evaluating websites, in this second part of an interview with Travel Agent, Tan also addresses how travel agents can achieve results and explores some of the tools –and costs- that agents face in developing their websites.
Tan believes that there’ll always be a market segment of clients who want personalized service and expert guidance. “They want to work with an agent with expertise,” he said. “The key challenges for agents for agents and agencies include building the agents/agency brand, conveying expertise, making a great impression, building trust and making the website affordable and easy to maintain without the cost of a programmer.”
The first step, Tan says, is for agents to do their benchmarking homework. “Surf around and check out various travel agency and tour operator websites,” he said. “Make a note of two or three that you like and that fulfill your goals. For example, there’s one that I particularly like: Bravo Italian Tours (www.bravoitaliantours.com). It’s absolutely beautiful and guess what: It’s a single person small business. This is a reminder that you don’t need to be a $100 million dollar agency to do something impressive.”
Next, Tan recommends selecting a one-stop website design/developer/hosting supplier. “Given how technology-challenged most agents are, make things simple for yourselves,” he said. “Choose a vendor that can do everything for you, from the design to programming to hosting it (or get it hosted) for you.”
Here, Tan offers two suggestions: Explore Intuit Websites (www.websites.intuit.com) or Logoworks by HP (www.logoworks.com). He notes that Intuit is the maker of TurboTax, Quicken, and other small business software and HP (Hewlett Packard) is one of the top 10 largest tech companies. Either will give agents the resources and financial stability of large companies, Tan says.
“Let’s start with Intuit’s website building solution, since it’s the most affordable,” he said. “If your budget is really tight, they have an incredibly affordable solution for a simple, yet reasonably attractive website. They have over 2,000 template designs from which you can browse and customize with your content and photos. They claim that you can do it yourself, but they’ll do it for you also or help you do it over the phone. You’ll also have access to zillions of photos that they have licensed, at no charge to you.”
Tan estimates costs at $50 upfront fee and $20 per month for hosting, with the agents own the domain name. “For an extra $15 per month, they’ll even submit your site to all the local online directories like Google Maps, Yahoo! and Local, and maintain it for you, so you’ll get found when users do local searches,” he said.
Another suggested solution from Tan is to get a custom designed website from Intuit. “This is recommended to get a more sophisticated and nicer website, customized to exactly what you want,” he said. “You can get a package that provides three design consultation sessions, and one revision cycle. Intuit will work closely with you to understand your needs and get the website up and running,” he said. Cost: $999 for the design/development. $20 per month for hosting.
Logoworks by HP is another option. “If you want more design options for a very nice website, something of the caliber of Bravo Italian Tours, I recommend one of the Logoworks packages that provide you with up to three design concepts, and you can ask for up to three revisions to refine it,” he said. Cost: $3,500 - $4,500 for the design/development, depending on number of pages and bells and whistles like flash. He estimates under $50 per month for hosting and content management tools.
“All of these solutions allow you to make content changes yourself (e.g. updating text and photos) with their content management tools (CMT) – and you can do this easily, without any knowledge of programming,” he said. “They’ll also help you set up your email following your domain name. For example, if your domain is ABCtravel.com, you can have e-mail addresses like [email protected] I highly recommend doing this because it’s does much to give a professional impression. Too often, I see agents using emails like [email protected] .”
Tan is critical of excessive use of Flash - software that gives animation to images. “While it can be nice, e.g. in a slideshow that automatically rotates the photos, be careful how much flash you use,” he said. The reason: Many mobile devices do not work with flash and search engines do not know how to read flash content.
In summary, Tan says these steps should give a practical process for agents to get a good website designed and built. “Again agents should start with their business strategy and be clear about what market(s) they are targeting and have long term viability,” he said. “Then get a website with content that positions you for that market. Pay attention to the six key goals outlined and surf around to find other travel websites that meet these goals and that you like. Then, to make life simpler, choose a reliable one-stop shop that can take care of the design/programming/hosting for you. Importantly, your chosen solution should allow you to maintain and change content like text and photos yourself, easily and affordably, without any knowledge of programming yourself. If you accomplish all this, you’ve got yourself a winning website that will serve you well as your most important marketing tool.”
Despite the intensity of online competition Tan says there will always be a market segment of clients who want personalized service and expert guidance and who want to work with a skilled agent. The growth of Zicasso.com – a luxury travel referral service that matches consumers with expert agents – testifies to this.
Tan also sees developing and maintaining strong web sites as a key for agents to prosper in the future. “Online competition is here to stay and will intensify. And a strong online presence is now essential for agents,” Tan said.