By: Sally Black, Family Travel Association
Many people are under the false impression that travel agents are as extinct as the dinosaurs. Truth is, we’re alive and doing very well. Leading industry analysts project U.S. Travel Agents will be responsible for 17.3 billion dollars in revenue by 2020. 40% of all leisure travel booked in the U.S. is done by travel agents.
Building partnerships with travel agents can certainly be a lucrative opportunity for some outfitters. Like any good partnership, it won’t happen overnight. To achieve success, you will need to invest some time and resources to support this new relationship. It’s important to appreciate that this type of relationship is not a “one size fits all” proposition. It’s important for you to review your business and pricing models because it may not be the right fit for every outfitter.
Many businesses today are often keen to spend marketing dollars and resources on social media campaigns to work with “influencers” that have large online audiences. Influencers can certainly bring brand awareness to your business but the people they influence may never act.
Travel agents are your outside sales people. They “influence” people once they have taken serious action and are at the point of purchase. Travel agents influence by bringing you more sales.
A brief history of the travel agent industry:
Today’s travel agents work differently than in years past. Travel agents used to be right in the heart of town between the supermarket and the video rental store. Now we’ve gone underground, which does contribute to our public identity struggle. Understanding the reason why will help you understand our business model and how most of us work today.
1995 was a pivotal year for travel agents. Up until that point, travel agents were some of the only people with high tech computers on their desk. If you needed to fly anywhere, they were the only ones who could book and print your airline ticket. Agents were paid a minimum of 10% on their sales. Then the government decided to deregulate the airline industry. One of the first things the airlines decided to do was to cut all commissions on airline ticket sales. Overnight, agents had lost millions in earned and potential revenue. In addition, 1995 was the year of E-tickets. Thanks to the internet, consumers could now book their own airline tickets. These events caused thousands of travel agents to go out of business. Those who survived went “underground” and started “home-based” agencies. Agents could continue the career they loved and care for their loyal clients with much lower business overhead.
How do travel agents compete in the age of the internet?
The internet may have caused the downfall of many travel agents, but today is it responsible for their resurgence. Google any vacation topic and consumers are presented with millions of possibilities along with polarizing reviews. Busy people in desperate search for the relief of a vacation do not have the time or patience to sort through millions of choices. Many are seeking the help of professional travel agents. This is especially true when it comes to family travel and complicated or extended itineraries.
It may seem counterintuitive for a generation that grew up online but surprisingly, millennials are not only turning to travel agents but recommending their services to friends and family. As a group, millennials value time and service. In addition, this generation was raised traveling to typical tourist destinations. Now that they have discretionary spending of their own, they crave untypical, social media envied travel experiences that travel agents know how to deliver.
How are travel agents paid?
Successful travel agents of today have learned how to adapt their business practices to modern times. Many agents today will charge service fees for consultations and itinerary planning. It is still common practice for travel agents to be paid a minimum 10% on their hotel, cruise and tour business. On products like airline tickets or a home stay, agents will charge a service fee a small service fee in lieu of commissions on these specific products.
Hotels, cruise lines and tour companies will incentivize travel agents based on their sales productivity. Often this comes in the form of higher commissions, gift cards or travel benefits. For example, if an agent books 12 weeks at a resort, they receive the 12th free. This could mean a free package for their own use, a sweepstakes prize for a marketing campaign or extra dollars to their bottom line. Many suppliers will also reward travel agents who promote customer loyalty. For example, cruise lines will pay agents their commission for a cruise booking but if that agent encourages clients to make a deposit a second cruise while onboard, the agent will be able to service that second reservation and earn full commission along with any additional perks.
Because many travel agents work from home offices, it’s often difficult to connect with them. In addition, many travel agents today work as freelance “Independent Contractors” commonly referred to as “ICs”. These agents just want to sell travel and do not want the responsibilities of running a business. ICs will work for a larger “host agencies” that handle business operations for them. A host agency may be independently operated, or they might also be part of an even larger franchise or consortium. This is how agents pool their resources, increase their buying power and earn higher commissions for themselves and their ICs. Franchises and consortiums will often offer consumer sales perks and rewards that help make these agencies far more competitive.
How can I partner with a travel Agent?
Often the best way to start making friends with your travel agent partners is to reach out via travel agent trade organization, agent publications and trade shows. It’s important to remember that many travel agents specialize in either specific destinations or products. An outfitter from Wyoming won’t find much benefit connecting with an agent that specializes in holy land tours. Whereas a ranch that caters to kids, families and family reunions would find benefit connecting with family certified travel agents that belong to the family travel association.
Once of the best ways to encourage relationships and business from travel agent partners is to simply put out a welcome mat for them. When agents are researching new experiences and preparing quotes for their clients, they will visit numerous supplier websites to comparison shop. Agents are conditioned by large cruise lines and hotel chains to look at main Nav bars and page footers for a link that reads “Travel Agents”. This link will connect to a landing page that simply states your company welcome the opportunity to work with agent partners and offers competitive commissions. Your landing page form should require agents to register with you – Their full contact details and a required IATA or CLIA number. These are the recognized industry licensing or credential numbers that will separate professional agents from a member of the public looking to get extra money off their reservation. Capturing agent details will help you build an email list of agent partners and a mechanism to broadcast special deals, rates or specialized packages in the future.
Where you’ll want to invest some attention and resources will be on your registration “thank you” page. Here you can provide agent links, e-guides, fact sheets and videos offering additional training about your products and experiences. To impress agent partners, this information and content needs to be practical and useful for agents. It needs to be packaged in a way that they can easily share it with their clients and your potential new guests. If it’s the same old sales and marketing propaganda that your marketing or PR folks have simply re-purposed, agents will move on to an outfitter that can give them what they require.
In today’s viral social media world, we often expect instantaneous success. True relationships and partnerships don’t just happen, they need to be nurtured. You don’t meet a stranger one day and decide to go into business or marry them the next day. Good partnerships are an investment of time and intention. Done properly they help us all to grow and prosper.
About the Author
Sally Black is a Certified Travel Agent. She has been involved in the leisure travel sales industry for nearly 30 years. In 2000, she created Vacationkids website and established one of the first home-based travel agencies with a specialization in complicated family travel needs. In 2015, Sally authored the book, “Fearless Family Vacations – How to Make Everyone Happy Without Losing Your Mind”. Sally is also the Director of Travel Agent Initiatives at the Family Travel Association.