The real value of host agencies may rest with intangibles with few metrics to measure results, including networking, developing mutual confidence and trust, friends made-even with competitors, problems shared and solved and technology and marketing ideas applied to build a business.
One respected veteran host manager, Betsy Geiser, vice president of Uniglobe Travel Central (UTC) based in Irvine, Calif., believes that successful host’s encourage person-to-person relations between their agents and suppliers and one- on- one communications. “The intangibles - in UTC’s case a family environment – are critical to the agent, preferred suppliers and the host.”
Geiser notes that many independent agents are home based and are often isolated from day-to-day peer to peer contact. “Our agents appreciate the informally and welcome events, webinars and conferences where they can make contacts with other agents and suppliers. They are better motivated and more productive.”
Of course, Geiser, who has presided over UTC’s growth for the past 14 years, has metrics. UTC itself had revenues of $83 million in 2012, up from $74 million in 2011, and serves 242 agencies and with a total of 500 agents. “Typically UTC agent's are selling up and benefiting from strong consumer demand.”
The average UTC agent is skilled and experienced, with 15 years in the business. On average, Geiser reports, member sales are in the $500,00 to $1 million range. UTC has 35 preferred suppliers including strong, long standing air, car hotel, tour and cruise partnerships.
Uniglobe Travel Center, the host division of Uniglobe Travel USA, also benefits from its parent company, UNIGLOBE Travel International, a major branded international travel management firm. UNIGLOBE has locations in 60 countries with annual system-wide sales volume of $5.0 plus billion.
Among new developments, Geiser reports that UTC’s enhancements to its proprietary UTC Agent - a web-based desktop travel management solution - have been well received by agents. Launched last year, UTC Agent gives agents a needs-based tool to manage their businesses and serve their client base.
The goal was to equip UTC member agents with a robust, relevant and readily accessible travel management solution, Geiser said, based on member input. The result is a comprehensive and needs-based solution.
UTC Agent is easy to use, requires minimal training and includes commission reporting and GDS access, Geiser says. It is essentially a back office accounting and management tool that empowers agents. It can include access to VAX and Amadeus Cruise, two leading technology tools.
Geiser says that UTC agents are among the most productive hosted agents in the business and use technology effectively. “As a rule it takes about five years to build a solid business and client base and adopting affordable and useful tools like UTC Agent helps.”
Underscoring UTC's commitment to growth is the recent appointment of Mary Clegg, formerly Vice President of the National Association of Career Travel Agents (NACTA), to director of sales.
Clegg will assume responsibility for UTC's membership programs and UTC's recently announced UTC Mentor U program, a program that targets new industry entrants and current agents seeking to ‘reinvent’ their businesses.
The program includes six months of interactive coaching with a focus on the practical aspects of starting and building a travel business, one-on-one and group mentoring and live participation in actual booking processes. The mentoring is from seasoned, successful UTC industry professionals.
UTC's strategy is to offer a diversity of tested programs designed to meet the needs of agents with various and often changing needs. This includes UTC’s Premier and Pro programs. The programs can include GDS or non-GDS options and have attracted both agents focused on leisure travel and business travel. Costs vary depending on program selected and features needed.
Another plus is UTC’s strong relationship with Vacation.com, the agency consortium that delivers real-time benefits to UTC agents. Geiser herself serves on Vacation.com’s Advisory Board and is a vice president – and a strong advocate - of the Professional Association of Travel Hosts or PATH. UTC also is a member of ASTA, ARC, NACTA, CLIA OSSN and IATAN.
Geiser also reports that record turnout is expected for UTC’s 2013 Conference, April 18 - 21, at the Marriott Laguna Cliffs, Dana Point, CA. Conference speakers include U. Gary Charlwood, Uniglobe Travel International's founder and member of both the ASTA and International Franchise Association Halls of Fame and well-known industry personality Stuart Cohen. Networking with suppliers and peers along with professional training are featured.
While Geiser is optimistic about the future of UTC and host agencies contributions to home based independent agents she is realistic about the competition and challenges faced by professional agents. “Opportunities abound including expansion of luxury travel sales, groups and cruises. But the agent needs solid technology and back office support. They must also be effective sales and marketing agents and represent their business with skill.” With Geiser and UTC agents have a champion and a source of professional support.