An Odd Couple? Traditional Agent Finds Success Online

by Marilee Crocker

Attracting new customers via the Internet is tough going for many travel agents. Converting online prospects into loyal revenue-generating clients is tougher still.

Not so for travel consultant Jessica Ourisman of Ourisman Travel, an independent affiliate of Brownell Travel. Fully 90% of Ourisman Travel's clients first come to the agency via the Internet.

Jessica Ourisman
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What’s more, most first-timers who contact Jessica Ourisman by email end up doing business with the agency. “I rarely have people just disappear,” Ourisman told Travel Market Report.

Dynamic, entrepreneurial
Ourisman, 32, is a relative newcomer to the travel agency profession. She began selling travel from her home in Baltimore, Md., in 2011, joining her father-in-law, David Ourisman, a luxury hotel specialist who works from his home in Berkeley, Calif.

The younger Ourisman was attracted to the agency business in part by its dynamic, entrepreneurial nature. “I love that opportunity to find my own way, test new ideas, see what works best for us.”

Much of what has worked best for Ourisman Travel is driving new customer leads by building a strong reputation online, then converting those leads into loyal clients.

The results?

Every week Jessica Ourisman lands five or more new luxury clients who find her online via various sources. Last year, the agency’s eight-member team posted sales of $7.3 million, up from $5 million in 2013.

Blogging to success
From the outset, blogging has been pivotal to building online visibility.

Jessica has a background in viral marketing, so when David Ourisman started selling travel in 2006, she urged him to launch a blog and a website right away. Jessica added her own blog when she joined the agency.

David Ourisman also focused on carving out an online reputation as a luxury hotel specialist, especially on FlyerTalk.com, a forum for frequent flyers. He posts all his trip reports on the message board. It has been his most productive source for new leads.

Connecting online
But getting leads is just a start.

For many agents the real challenge is making a connection with prospective customers who contact them online. That’s where Ourisman Travel excels.

Rather than respond to online inquiries by trying to weed out the deal shoppers, as many agents do, Jessica Ourisman aims to be “welcoming and open” to all.

This includes sharing resources with prospects right from the get-go. “We’re not afraid to give away information––insider information, tips and expertise. It helps people understand who we are,” she said.

“The more open we are, the more information we provide, the more it makes us seem easy to work with.”

What about the tire kickers?
As for the deal shoppers and tire kickers, the agency’s website fends them off by emphasizing its focus on high-touch luxury travel and suggesting a certain selectivity in its clientele.

This includes a page that asks prospective clients questions such as, “Do you spend on average at least $1,500 per hotel stay or $2,500 per trip?”

By the time someone emails the agency, they’ve already begun a relationship, Ourisman said. “Then we just continue that. The way I think about it is making friends with strangers.”

The personality of the agency’s digital communications—both email and, increasingly, text messages—is critical to that effort, she said.

“We’ve developed a really great tone and language for working with our clients digitally. I think that’s where we’ve really found our stride.”

Organic search results
Many travelers today learn about Ourisman when the agency’s name pops up on Google during a search for luxury hotels.

Those organic search results—the holy grail of Internet marketing—have come about largely as an offshoot of following basic best practices, such as keeping the agency’s blogs up to date and using keywords that drive traffic.

It doesn’t take all that much effort, said Jessica, who currently blogs about once a month, but aims for more.

“A lot of this is long-tail stuff, so once it’s up there, it’s there forever,” she said. “A blog we wrote in 2011, still gets traffic today.”

The social media challenge
One online arena that has proven more daunting is social media.

 “I haven’t found a social media style or strategy that I like. I’m constantly trying new ideas and abandoning them,” she said.

This year she’s focusing on Pinterest, having found that Facebook is better for engaging with current clients than for driving new business.

“Social media is constantly changing. I haven’t found one thing that fits, but I keep trying.”

And that gets back to what attracted Jessica Ourisman to the travel agency profession in the first place.

“This is such a dynamic time in the travel industry; you can really try anything,” she said. “You can come at it from a million different angles.”

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