Close to 200 American Express Travel Counselors were recently surveyed on the evolution of the industry and 2014 travel trends, with some fascinating results about technological innovations, trends, expectations and needs from the agent community.
At the recent American Express Retail Travel Network Learning Forum 2013, several American Express Travel Insiders gathered for a roundtable, moderated by Tony Gonchar, vice president of the Consumer Travel Network, to discuss the survey, its results and the state of the industry.
Internet: Friend or Foe?
Survey Says: The Internet has been a friend in (61 percent) helping to make jobs more efficient, providing them with better access to information and deals.
Chris Knauer, a travel insider with Travelink specializing in France and Golf, noted that the American Express website funnels viewers to travel agent specialists and can help bring in new business as potential clients begin their research. A full 270 insiders are listed on the website, and even visitors who are not cardmembers can see the names and contact details.
Social Media is also changing the dynamic of how clients conduct research, and how agents can make new contacts. Kelly Short of Travel Concepts, who specializes in Las Vegas and New York City, uses sites like Instagram, Facebook and Twitter to not only promote her own business and share her insights, but to get information on where people are going and what they want from vacations.
Survey Says: 52 percent also agree that consumers are more knowledgeable than ever before, with many doing their own research.
Rena Harris of Azumano Travel Wizard who specializes in Honeymoons/Romance and Alaska, acknowledged that travelers doing their own research may believe that they can create the same experience as an agent, but that agents need to convince their clients that professionals simply do it better. “We can get them things they can't get online,” she said. Judy Krogh, who specializes in California and Switzerland, agreed, noting that an agent's support is vital in case something goes wrong. Bonnie Christy, who specializes in France and the Bahamas, said that while a traveler can learn about local restaurants from web sources, an agent would be able to arrange their favorite bottle of wine to be waiting for them when they arrive for dinner.
“We have their contact information,” Mary McDaniel, who specializes in Florida, said about her favorite hoteliers. “We can send VIP letters to get customers upgraded.” Vicki Pandolfo, who specializes in Italy, agreed. “Clients like having someone who has been there,” she said. “That's the value we add. We have tips and ideas—not just for restaurants, but for things to see. They can't get that with an OTA.”
Younger travelers, Pandolfo continued, look for everything online. An agent's personal webpage or Facebook profile needs to demonstrate that the agent is both knowledgeable and experienced. “That is the main way to get younger travelers,” she said. Krogh noted that an agent can determine the best match for a client's personal taste, while a TripAdvisor review may be well-written and accurate—but is geared towards a traveler with a different style.
Vacation Expectations / Travel Trends
Survey Says: Customers are planning at least as many, if not more trips with them in 2014, as the previous year (63 percent responded), and 43 percent of travel counselors reported their clients were booking further ahead in 2014 (vs 2013). A full 92 percent said customers were planning to spend at least as much, if not more on trips in 2014, as compared to the previous year.
Harris noted that rather than booking for a short trip just a few weeks in advance, travelers are saving up for longer trips—and spending more money.
Survey Says: With the extra budget slated for vacations, travelers are planning on visiting more exotic locales, with 54 percent of travel counselors citing their customers’ preference for international destinations, citing Southeast Asia, Rio de Janeiro, New Zealand, Croatia and Costa Rica as among those high in demand.
Christy has seen a notable increase in long, involved excursions to exotic locations (India is popular, she noted), and Vicki has seen lots of interest in the Seychelles, with requests for Phuket and the Mauritius. “Young people want to go somewhere fun and active,” she noted. “Older people, who are more experienced, have already done the places everyone has gone to. Now they're going on cruises along the western coast of Africa, or trying to hit all seven continents. They want to do something nobody they know has done.”
Alaskan cruises are no longer seven-day excursions up the Inland Passage, Harris says. “Now people are going to Kodiak Island and staying at a bear camp, or hiking up Mt. Dinali and spending the night. And they're bringing the kids, so their children can experience the excitement, too.” Christy, meanwhile, had a client who requested a month-long tour of Europe that included a cruise.
Survey Says: Cruising will also continue to make waves, with 42 percent of agents reporting that more travelers are cruising in 2014 and an impressive 76 percent of respondents noting the continued trend towards river cruising.
While recent cruising disasters including the Costa Concordia tragedy and the Carnival Triumph have made headlines, Christy hasn't seen an adverse affect in her cruise business. “Move on. The incident happened; it doesn't stop you from taking a cruise,” she said, adding that when an accident happens over a weekend, she still gets calls on Monday to book. Knauer noted that experienced cruisers see these disasters as isolated incidents, and are more attracted by favorable deals on big-name ships.
Survey Says: Arts and culture remains a key driver for vacation decisions according to 32 percent of respondents, followed by luxury travel (27 percent), culinary travel (21 percent) and adventure travel (16 percent).
Need for specialization
Survey Says: More than a third of respondents (38 percent) feel a deep knowledge of a particular destination or travel experience will be the most important tool in their arsenal as the travel industry continues to evolve over the next five years.
American Express' Insiders are required to visit their area of expertise every five years, Vicki said. “It makes a huge difference,” she added, noting that there is nothing like actually visiting a destination to get a real insider's perspective. “We go to the destination and then we have webinars,.”
“You have to learn about a place's history and culture, not just what to see and do,” Mary Ellen said. “And you have to keep maintaining that level of expertise. We're tested,” she added.
“It's not just about visiting, but cultivating relationships within destinations,” Kelly said. “I can tell my clients, 'Anything you want to happen, I can make it happen.' I've never failed them yet.” Harris also seeks out feedback from clients when they return from trips, adding their suggestions to her list for future experiences.
And while there is no limit to an agent's expertise, agents in the specialist program only officially specialize in two destinations. “You can't stay that informed on five destinations,” Krogh noted. Gonchar said that the program is still evolving, but that even after only two years, the team knew that focusing on fewer destinations—and being a true expert—is better than only knowing a little about a lot.