Are Destination Specialist Agents Falling Behind?
by Maria Lenhart
Are Destination Specialist Agents Falling Behind?

This is part one in a series on how to succeed as a destination specialist in the 21st century.

In an age where consumers can navigate the globe with their fingertips, what does it take to be a true destination specialist? How can travel agents hope to stay ahead of their always-connected, app-happy clients?

Despite – or perhaps because of – the endless destination data available on the Internet, destinations specialists have a more important role to play than ever, according to industry experts. Travelers need trusted advisors to guide them through an overwhelming sea of information and sales pitches.

Unfortunately, travel sellers “are falling behind,” says industry educator Nolan Burris, CTC. “Our own surveys keep showing that consumers want advice from consultants, but say they rarely get it. Instead, they get information.”

To learn what it takes to be an effective destination specialist in the digital age, Travel Market Report spoke with Burris, president of Future Proof Travel Solutions; Patty Noonan, CTC, director of sales for The Travel Institute, and Martha Gaughen, vice president of Brownell Travel.

What does it mean to be a destination specialist today, and how has that changed?
Gaughen: There is a lot of great information on the Internet, but the biggest problem is that there is too much of it and, of course, a lot of it is biased. It’s hard to process it and to determine what’s true or not.

The specialist consultant is the advocate for the client who can decipher the mass of information and stand behind what they advise. The reality is there’s no way for someone to look at something on the Internet and really know if it’s the right place for them.

How does the wide availability of information alter the role of the destination specialist?
Burris: So-called information is everywhere – so is advertising and promotional information. It can be hard to tell the difference, but the average consumer doesn't always know that.

Travel consultants have to learn and promote [the importance of] distinguishing between the two. It’s sifting promotion from actual information – but also, sifting opinion from advice. All the review websites are little more than collections of personal opinions. They help, but advice is not an opinion.

It's about asking the right questions in order to make the right recommendations for the right fit. It takes knowing the destination and the client.

How can agents distinguish themselves as destination specialists in the eyes of today’s consumer?
Burris: Travel consultants have to do a much better job at selling themselves. Most important of all – they have to learn the art of consulting, which is totally different from selling. Advice cannot be found online. Information can. Learn the art of consulting and you'll understand the difference.

Noonan: Agents bring so much more than just destination information. Through their relationships and own travel experience, they can bring the destination to life and add those small intimate details that are only known to someone in the know.

They know the folks at the hotel; they work on a regular basis with the tour operators, tourism boards, tour guides and ground suppliers. While no one can know everything, a travel professional has access to resources that are not available to consumers.

How can agents position themselves in the marketplace as destination experts who have knowledge consumers can’t easily get elsewhere?
Noonan: It is up to the agents to market themselves as specializing in a particular product and destination. Put it on your business card, letterhead and website. Promote it everywhere you can. Host presentations, live and online, to let consumers see your knowledge and passion for a destination or product.

If they are good, the word will spread from satisfied clients.

Gaughen: Since our agency is fee-based, we know it’s about how you present yourself and how you show your value to the client. We bring a lot of this to the table. It’s your expertise that the client is paying for. It’s not biased information. It’s all about getting your customer the best value for their buck.

We list all of our destination specialists on our website. Some have taken certification courses, while others have just traveled there frequently and produce a certain amount of business in the destination. In order to stay on the list as a specialist, you have to show that you are selling it and that you are visiting it frequently.

Do agents’ preferred supplier relations skew that equation in any way?
Gaughen: They are not locked into one product. Your normal specialist or consultant is not dedicated to a certain thing. While they may want you to go to a preferred supplier, it’s because of their relationship with that property. They can guarantee you a certain type of experience. It’s not just that they are getting a bigger split of the pie – they can deliver the experience.

To what extent do you rely on local contacts in a destination?
Gaughen: It’s important to have partnerships with companies in your destination that handle inbound travel. You need to know who to contact for the best insider information. The onsite partner has relationships with guides and hotels; they know the latest travel advisory information.

In our case, Virtuoso supplies us with contacts at onsite companies who are at our beck and call.

I specialize in East Africa, and I go there twice a year. There’s no way I can stay current with all the latest information at the camps, but my onsite partner does. They will be the first ones to advise me on why a certain camp is not a good choice now, or if there is a safety problem in the area.  

Any other tips?
Burris: Focus more on your client than on selling your destination specialty. That part will come naturally if you are good at what you do. If you keep your energy and attention focused on their needs and desires, you'll be light years ahead of your competitors.

Next time: Is today's destination training doing its job, or does it need to change?

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