Despite the economic downturn and the drumbeat of bad news, there are genuine opportunities to expand travel sales, Gary Fee, president of the 7,800-member Outside Sales Support Network (OSSN), believes. Fee, a veteran agent and founder of OSSN, not only predicts growth in member sales in 2009, but sustained growth for OSSN and an expanded role for the 19-year-old association.
“Optimism among OSSN agents is high. Our research, conference calls and feedback is overwhelmingly positive,” Fee said in an interview with homebasedta.com. And that adds up to good news for 4,000 travel agency and 3,000 independent agent members of OSSN, along with supplier and host agency members. Fifty-eight percent of 1,000–plus members surveyed in December predicted their business will grow in the year ahead.
With 76 chapters across the U.S. organized into four regions, Fee predicts OSSN will expand to 90 chapters in 2009. He also predicts corresponding gains in membership to 9,000 members and sees growth in the use OSSN’s Travel Retailer Universal Enumeration, or TRUE program, a key member benefit.
While Fee admits that there are uncertainties ahead and that the economic downturn and consumer confidence will impact agencies, agents and suppliers, he remains bullish, in large part because of the ability of OSSN members to move product and to sell effectively. “The downturn is focusing agents’ attention on building sales,” he says. “And they are good at it.”
In 2009, OSSN’s focus will remain on the sale of travel. Much of OSSN’s program will be targeted to helping agents increase sales to build profitability. In turn, Fee expects this to produce steady increases in supplier support of OSSN member agents. “OSSN agents and agencies are productive and professional and our suppliers are increasingly aware of this,” he says.
Much of Fee’s success is attributable to his grasp of the changes underway in travel distribution. For example, he believes that independent contractors are now the predominant source of product distribution—a reality that is encouraging industry suppliers to focus on education, training and motivation of OSSN members. OSSN’s current supplier roster includes 175 suppliers, primarily on the leisure side. The OSSN survey said 52 percent found suppliers more anxious to work with agents in a down economy.
“A major trend is the expansion of home-based travel agencies to include other sales-driven agents,” says Fee. “They are becoming mini-host agencies without the overhead of GDS contracts or ARC appointments.” He estimates that there are about 200 host-agency members who are gaining market share. Service fees are widely used and a majority have E&O policies. Cruises and tours are the principal products sold.
For the immediate future, Fee sees the need for agents and agencies to be prepared to communicate and market to consumer deals generated by suppliers. He encourages agents to work with suppliers who are financially sound, marketing-savvy and genuinely supportive of agents with competitive commissions and cooperative funding. More than 70 percent of survey respondents said they were creating a market plan for 2009.
Current OSSN research provides an interesting perspective. OSSN agents are experienced professionals, with 44 percent in business for 10 years or more and 21 percent for five to 10 years. Forty-one percent have changed their niches in the last five years, while 26 percent came from a host agency. Fifty-four percent use the TRUE booking code and 23 percent CLIA’s booking number.
A core program is OSSN’s TRUE, now recognized by all but a minority of suppliers including cruise lines, tour operators, hoteliers and car rental companies. Based on IATA/IATAN data, TRUE allows the travel agent or agency to book travel products and services directly with thousands of travel industry suppliers and be compensated with a commission directly by the supplier.
Education is important to OSSN member agents—37 percent are destination specialists, while 24 percent have CLIA designations (ACC, MCC or ECC). Nearly 8 percent are CTCs and 6 percent CTAs. More than 80 percent plan on attending a travel industry show in 2009, and 61 percent have participated in an online virtual trade show in 2008. Logically, Fee plans on expanding OSSN’s training program in 2009. This includes fam trips, online education and a host of chapter programs. A major event is OSSN’s International Conference in Dubai April 16-21.
If there is a weakness apparent from OSSN’s research, it may be a need for a stronger web presence among agents. Only 26 percent report getting leads from their sites and 11 percent say they are closing sales from websites. Eleven percent called their website a cost center and only 7 percent a profit center. Twenty-three percent said they need help with their website and 11 percent said they planned on shutting down their sites.
Fee’s genius is not only in building a strong, respected association with a vigorous chapter network, but in anticipating the evolution of the distribution system from brick-and-mortar storefronts to the home-based and independent agency models in all their diversity. And whatever the future holds for the industry, the independent agency and agent will have an ally in Gary Fee and value in OSSN membership.
OSSN invites agents to visit its website, www.ossn.com, for membership information, TRUE qualifications and extensive information on chapter programs and fam trip opportunities.