As a home-based travel agent, the number-one way to get the word out to a large audience about your agency is by using the Internet. To build your presence online, you must, of course, start with a web site. However, the web address or the site itself shouldn't just consist of YourNameHere.com. Here are some tips from travel industry pros who have made the web work for them.
Specialization is Key
Every one of Sales' web sites has a specific focus. Any venture you pursue on the web should have the same, Sales advises. "It appeals to a specific kind of traveler by having a forum to share experiences and by giving access to articles about the products that are specific to [a site such as] small-ship cruising or specialty cruises," Sales says.
Though Sales admits maintaining a web site takes a lot of work and manpower—UncommonCruises.com required three full-time workers over the last year—it pays off in the long run. "We spent a great deal of money on marketing on Disney-related sites and in print magazines and all of that comes back in the forms of leads," she says. "Agents also write content for the site with their names listed and in turn get more leads because of it," she says.
Given the cost and time investment web sites require, Sales believes a better option for some home-based agents is to affiliate with an agency site that supports their expertise. "Find an agency that's deeply involved in that as a host agency, because you will get better structured commissions," she says. "If they're really oriented to supporting home-based agents then they will provide the tools to maximize the business."
Linda Farina, owner of Denlin Travel in Parsippany, NJ, credits her host agency, Montrose Travel, for helping her get the word out about her home-based agency. Having a web site is a great marketing tool, especially when it's a good web site, Farina says.
Montrose determines the content of the web site, but agents are welcome to give suggestions concerning format, content and visuals. The deals are determined by Montorse, and Farina is quick to add that they are some of the best.
Farina uses her web site to introduce herself to people. She provides potential clients with the web address and then they can surf on their own and look at deals. Farina says having the site has helped because potential clients can either book a trip on their own through the site or at least get an idea of where they want to go before she steps in.
Not exactly a technophile, Farina says the site is very user friendly and interactive. It's a one-stop shopping type of site, Farina says. Clients can research different types of travel and a variety of destinations and store all of their frequent flier numbers there.
Farina says that generally if a bargain exists for a travel product, she will have it on her site. This allows her to be competitive in the marketplace; she sometimes even gets better pricing than the rival sites, consolidators and tour operators she checks.
The Advantage of Multiple Sites
If you are feeling comfortable with your first site and want to branch out and divvy up your areas of expertise, going for a second or third web site might be a worthwhile option.
Nancy P. Vinson, owner of Vacation Discounters, Inc. in San Ramon, CA, says the best web strategy is to build as many web sites as possible. According to Vinson, whose agency created 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 one type of niche market, such as wine tasting or honeymoon vacations, or one 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."
Start a Blog or Host One
Everyone has an opinion these days, and the best way to express it is through a web log, or blog. On your blog, you can answer questions and talk about certain destinations.
If you are on a tight budget, look to sites such as Blogger.com and Wordpress.com, which offer free blog hosting—the only thing you need is Internet access, an e-mail account and the wherewithal to write about just about anything you want as it pertains to your business or the industry. Survival Tips
All-Travel.com, a Signature member agency headquartered in Valencia, CA, created a web presence nine years ago when it inaugurated its first one-page web site. The company has since gone into cyberspace overdrive, maintaining 13 web sites overseen by two full-time web designers.
In an attempt to stay cutting edge, All-Travel.com will institute a blog in the coming months. "I see the blog with the greatest relevancy to be one coming from the consumer, sharing information about cruises and trips they've taken," David Van Ness, vice president of marketing, All-Travel.com, says.
When asked about the possible consequences of a client-created blog, Van Ness offers that it's a fine line he's walking. "I want to be open to criticism of our staff and agency, and I don't have a problem with a client criticizing a vendor if that's been the client's experience. A particular product might not have been the right product for that client."
Van Ness has this tip for agencies with web sites: "It's important to keep your information updated. It's an ongoing juggling act, and there's a lot of hard work involved, but we're diligent about the daily updating of our sites."
Continue Growing and Adapting
Passageways Travel's President, Tom Rockne, has long known the importance of maintaining and growing his company's web site. "We're about to launch the fourth or fifth iteration of our web presence," Rockne says.
The ability to touch clients or prospective customers before the point of sale and relay real-time information is necessary to the success and growth of a travel agency.
"We dispense more information and reach out to touch customers via e-newsletters more than we book online," he says. Yet the e-newsletters are guiding more people to the web site, which is increasing web bookings.
"Our online air, car and hotel bookings are all increasing," Rockne shares, "and the information we share on our site and the invitation to contact us via e-mail or phone is resulting in a discernable, if not precisely measurable, response."
Rockne says Passageways is beginning to dabble in optimization efforts. Search engine optimization (SEO) tools can up a company's presence on the web, potentially attracting more customers. SEOs improve rankings with search engines such as Yahoo and Google.
For example, if an agency wants to highlight its European cruises business, a skilled programmer can arrange it so that if a user searches the keywords "European" and "cruises" or some equal derivative, that agency's web site will pop up near the top of the first page of search results. The higher a web site's placement, the more hits it may manage to draw.
Yet, when it comes down to it, a strong web presence is only one way to attract potential clients. "You need to reach out to customers each place they might look for you," Rockne says. "So a web site today is a must."
It also cuts down on time consumption. "You don't have the time to deliver all the information and assurances to clients individually that your web site can deliver to hundreds and thousands," Rockne says. "We brick-and-mortar agents have dealt with our friends and neighbors for decades and that's our lesson and advantage going forward. They've walked in, called and now they e-mail as well. On the web, we need to convey that same caring along with our expertise."
-Mackenzie Allison, David Eisen, Camie Foster, Jennifer Merritt, Jospeh Pike and Mark Rogers