|The emergence of social media has added a technological dimension to networking.|
Networking lies at the heart of what independent travel agents do. It’s a basic technique to build a client base, establish relations with suppliers and interact with peers. But there is a big difference between random networking and a structured, result-oriented networking program that builds a business.
For the home-based agent, networking is indispensable. But it’s complicated by the size, complexity and rapid pace of change in the global travel industry. Think thousands of suppliers all with changing policies, products and personnel.
Jackie Friedman, the veteran president of Nexion, which hosts 3,300 home-based members and is part of Travel Leaders Group, tells Travel Agent: “Networking is particularly important for home-based travel agents since in many ways it replaces the agent at the next desk. Over the past few years, online networking forums have emerged with resources like private travel networking groups on Facebook to the Travel Professional Community.”
Strong interpersonal relationships—a key byproduct of networking—arm travel agents with many advantages. And management gurus suggest that a structured, planned program is needed, including such basics as business cards, contact record keeping, and even setting goals for reaching out to clients, suppliers and peers.
“Nexion recognized the benefits of enabling agents to connect with each other online and launched our Nexion Town social networking site several years ago,” says Friedman. “This enables agents, suppliers and staff to interact with each other, to ask and answer questions, to share best practices and advice, and to build relationships with their peers.”
The consensus among host agencies and consortia is that networking should not be left to chance. It should be part of a home-based agent’s overall business plan and a cornerstone of a marketing plan. The Harvard Business Review, for example, has devoted scores of articles to networking’s importance.
John Risner, vice president and general manager, Results! Travel, a unit of Travel Leaders Group, says networking is perceived by Results! agents as a key membership benefit. “To them this term refers to the sharing of ideas and best practices. Learning from peers’ real-world experiences carries a validity and credibility that other learning experiences cannot provide.”
Risner also cites the advantages of structure in networking programs. “We facilitate this type of networking both online and face-to-face. Our initial online training, Results! University, combines orientation into all the programs and services that are offered with online sharing between participants of how each new agency may wish to use these programs,” he says.
“Our local market meetings, fall conferences, leadership council meetings and our national meeting all offer our members the opportunity to learn corporately, but then to break into peer groups to discuss the practical application of what each of them have learned,” Risner adds. “This type of networking has led to strong relationships being built that have then facilitated members working together in productive, collaborative ways.”
But networking has changed. Once viewed narrowly as an essential approach to job-hunting, it has become something different—a mainstream approach to business building.
Structured networking is now an integral part of the programs of major host agencies and agency consortia with all types of agents, including independent owners of brick-and-mortar locations benefiting. Travel Leaders Franchise Group, for example, has an Independent Contractor (IC) Center of Excellence, enabling Travel Leaders members to bring their ICs to Travel Leaders’ networking events.
Witness also the emergence of social media that is now part of the fabric of life and business. Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter or MySpace and others have added a technological dimension to networking. This is being used effectively by growth-oriented home-based agents who appreciate that “share of mind” can deliver “share of market.” Today’s networking programs now have a powerful, global technological dimension.
“Thanks to social media—which a large cross-section of our associates have been early adopters and are actively utilizing—they now have even more opportunities to engage in dialogue not only with each other, but also with their customers,” says Roger Block, president of the Travel Leaders Franchise Group. “Facebook is the leading tool, but it extends to Twitter, Linked-In and Pinterest. We even encourage those who are new to social media to feel free and share our Travel Leaders Facebook and Twitter posts with their clientele to begin the dialogue with them.”
Another plus for the home-based agent—in fact, all travel agents—is the number of meetings and conferences sponsored by industry associations, consortia and franchise groups, as well as host agencies who build networking opportunities into events programs. Welcomed by suppliers looking to build relations with productive agents, structured networking opportunities are a real plus.
John Lovell, president of Vacation.com, a major group with thousands of home-based agents among its ranks, believes there are three types of networking: peer-to-peer, face-to-face, and peer-to-peer/e-commerce-driven activities. Plus, there is “facilitated networking.” Vacation.com encourages all of the above and more, Lovell notes, including regional meetings and a Facebook community page.
Many groups—and suppliers—provide training on social media networking and encourage agents to promote their professional expertise. Groups carve out pages that detail the member agent’s background and areas of expertise. Web pages sponsored by the agent can also be useful—especially if interactive—and they encourage client participation.
Nexion’s Friedman also points out another dimension of networking—inter-agent cooperation. “It continues to amaze me how collaborative our agents are,” she says. “They are always willing to assist others even though technically they are competitors. [Nexion Town] really has evolved into a community resource that all can tap into. Agents connect with other agents to provide back up for each other when they are away. Agents may refer bookings to another agent who specializes in a specific destination or travel type.” Friedman reports Nexion Town hitting the 10,000 question mark.
Does networking have a future? Friedman predicts solid gains. “I truly believe that agent-to-agent networking has helped us build a strong community of agents and that has led to healthy year over year growth since we launched.” Home-based independent agents clearly benefit from networking programs of host agencies and consortia—as do all agents—and there is more coming to empower travel retailers.