Your Lifeline/Sphere of Influence

If you listen closely, you'll hear the footsteps of thousands of home-based travel agents across the country and around the world, quietly building their businesses. It's a very different sound from the stampede of the mega Internet travel agencies that echoed in the late 1990s as they steamrolled across the country, crushing many agencies along the way.

Fueled by dot-com millions and cutting-edge technology, these mega-agencies were impressive. Stealing market share where they could, mega-agencies did a great job of getting very big, very fast. But as we enter the next stage of travel distribution, the home-based agent is quietly becoming a dominant force.

Let's be clear—nobody is predicting the demise of mega-agencies. But a careful survey of the landscape reveals an enormous opportunity for the smart home-based travel agent. As home-based agents approach the business and develop their own marketing strategies, it is critical that they ask themselves "what is my competitive advantage?"

The answer, in a word, is loyalty.

Rather then fighting the mega agencies on their turf and in their space, home-based agents should open up a third front and leverage their greatest asset—their circle of influence. A home-based travel agent's competitive advantage is the local knowledge and contacts that the agent enjoys in his or her community and hometown and the loyalty that accompanies those relationships.

A home-based agent should build her business around personal relationships with customers. A successful home-based agent sells travel by leveraging relationships with friends, family, business associates, charities and religious organizations.

My view has always been that this business is similar to that of Avon. "Avon Ladies" achieve success by selling their goods and services via a grassroots effort and capitalizing on existing relationships and trust. It should be the same with home-based agents selling vacations, cruises, honeymoons and hotel stays.

Friends and family is the number one and most trusted source for travel recommendations, according to the most recent YPB&R/Yankelovich National Travel Monitor. Home-based travel agents across the country have capitalized on these trusted relationships to successfully build this distribution channel.

Home-based agents are the first ones to volunteer to organize the annual trip to Bermuda or wherever. They are the trusted friend people call when planning a honeymoon or an anniversary celebration or when business travel is becoming too expensive. Home-based travel agents are the "boots on the ground," building relationships even before their clients are making their travel decisions. It is these relationships that bring the clients back time and time again.

And it's this loyalty—or should I say this competitive advantage?—that sets the ground where the next battle for market share will be won or lost. Let's not be naïve—the mega-agencies understand the importance of loyalty and are working diligently to create their own loyalty programs. But without a personal relationship with their customer, loyalty can be difficult to obtain and even tougher to keep.

Guest author Michael Gross is president and CEO of host agency Global Travel International. He can be reached at [email protected]