Should Home-Based Agents Be Afraid of the Internet?

Research firm PhoCusWright Inc. is set to show the flip side of a December study it released that predicted online bookings will account for more than half—54 percent—of all U.S. travel bookings by consumers in 2007.  Savvy home-based agents are using the Internet to their advantage

PhoCusWright is currently in the preliminary stages of preparing a study of offline bookings. Although the specifics of the study haven't been released yet, Michael Cannizzaro, director of information services for PhoCusWright Inc., says it will include numbers of offline bookings made by both brick-and-mortar and home-based agents. Like most Pho-CusWright studies, this one will most likely include an analysis of how an agent can still succeed in a technology-driven era.

One aspect about the study is certain. It is expected to further show what most travel professionals already suspected: Bookings by home-based agents make up a large portion of overall, offline bookings by all agents, Cannizzaro says.

With that said, Home-Based Travel Agent was not surprised when we talked to some of the best home-based travel agents in the profession and found that most were not intimidated by Pho-CusWright's study.

"With today's market, everybody has access to the Internet and the ability to price and research their destination of choice," says Toby Byrd, Travel Planners Inc.'s most-improved agent in 2006. "However, what is missing is that one reliable source: the contact person who can answer your questions, direct you to information sources and make sure that all the details have been addressed. Our typical traveler is busy with career, family life, social and community obligations. Hence, their time is limited and they prefer to rely on a qualified travel agent to organize all their travel needs." Joanie Ogg, president of NACTA

Joanie Ogg, president of the National Association of Commissioned Travel Agents (NACTA), says home-based agents don't need to fear the web, because their own accessibility makes them competitive. As with online shopping in general, consumers tend to be attracted to the Internet because they can purchase something any time, at their own convenience. But since most home-based agents can be reached 24/7, this factor doesn't hurt them.

"I went to a seminar once and asked the home-based agents there, 'Who is available 24/7?' and pretty much the entire room raised their hands," Ogg says. "There is pressure on clients when it comes to brick-and-mortar agencies, because the customer knows they only have a certain amount of time to talk to someone. With home-based agents, consumers know they can speak to someone at all times on the phone. There is no pressure to have to meet someone at a certain time face-to-face."

Sue Johnson, Travel Planners Inc.'s top-producing agent, says phone bookings are serving the same purpose as online bookings, except for the fact that the person-to-person feel is still there. Because the Internet provides the information consumers need and the phone provides the human contact consumers want, Johnson says there is no need for a storefront. "Since e-tickets and the Internet, it seemed that everything was handled by phone, so I saw no reason for a storefront so I moved my business to my home in 2002 and have never looked back," Johnson says.

Nancy P. Vinson, owner of Vacation Discounters, Inc. in San Ramon, CA, says she too has been able to use the web to her advantage. How? Her agency's strategy is to build as many web sites as possible. According to Vinson, whose agency launched its first web site in the late '90s and has since created nearly 30 more, one web site is not enough and may scare the client away with too much information. Besides that factor, Vinson also takes pride in the fact that each of her agency's web sites is devoted to a single niche market, such as wine tastings or honeymoon vacations, or one type of destination, such as Hawaii or Alaska.

"I don't think consumers like to go online and see a web site that has information on everything," she says. "I would rather a client see that we know a lot about one thing than a little about everything."

Instead, Vinson makes sure that every web site has one type of vacation. Vacation Discounters, Inc., a member of the Signature Travel Network, has gross sales of more than $5 million and uses about 20 independent contractors. Vinson says each of the contractors has a different area of expertise and contact information for each contractor is available on the site that best fits its particular niche. For example, if a consumer is visiting a site devoted to Vacation Discounters, Inc.'s trips to Alaska, the consumer will be directed to a contractor that specializes in Alaska. It is best to utilize the web, Vinson contends, to provide information and show the consumer that your agency knows what it is talking about.

Price information and booking should be left for either face-to-face or phone conversations only, Vinson says. If clients are interested in booking a vacation on one of the Vacation Discounters, Inc.'s sites, they will be given an agent's phone number to call. Or, if consumers fill out an online questionnaire with general information about themselves, Vinson herself will e-mail them contact information for agents with whom they should speak. "Some people use the web because they want information and they want it quickly," Vinson says. "Some people don't use the web because they want that person-to-person to feel; they want to speak to a real person. We offer both, and that's why we are so successful."

Many home-based agents choose to focus a major part of their clientele-recruiting efforts on corporate travelers, who often prefer to book with an agent rather than online. In fact, Edward Pearson, the top-producing agent for Travel Counsellors, says about 30 percent of his sales, which gross $4.3 million, are with one business account. "I am 99 percent corporate travel, and I must say that at first the Internet hurt my business, and then it actually helped me, since everyone found out what is involved in making reservations, handling the many changes and having it all go smoothly in the end," he says. "I really feel that the corporate client will always need travel agents, because we provide a great service at such a small cost."

PhoCusWright's U.S. Online Travel Overview, the company's flagship domestic research report, is used by industry executives and other key decision makers in all segments of the travel, tourism and hospitality industries to make informed, strategic business decisions and as a guide to travel industry trends.

PhoCusWright conducts and publishes primary research used in strategic planning and forecasting. The company, known for predicting the rise of online travel-related commerce, PhoCusWright continues to provide all segments of the travel industry's value chain with information to facilitate competitive decision-making. The company also produces a series of high-profile conferences for senior executives in the travel industry. More information can be found at

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