California is investing heavily in a new mobile app to enable agents to immerse themselves in California destinations and attractions because the state tourism agency believes agents are best suited to market authentic experiences to leisure travelers.
Since last fall, Visit California has been rolling out California STAR, specifically designed to provide agents with training, sales tools, social media content, as well as resources that educate agents on destinations and experiences to promote California through their own marketing channels.
California STAR has resulted in nearly 1,800 completed travel agent trainings worldwide, and has had nearly 10,000 unique visitors, 241,000 content shares and over 148,000 video views.
Through any mobile device, travel agents have access "to instant expertise, as well as timely and evergreen content" and can share videos, brochures, itineraries and more with their clients with the tap of a finger, said Alex Vigil, global trade manager, Asia & Middle East, Visit California.
"We want the STAR platform to be the one-stop resource. No matter how you engage with your clients, and whatever your agent network is."
"There's so much information on the internet, and consumers can get confused," Vigil said, noting how the plethora of travel websites, including in many cases paid advertising, make it hard for consumers to match up their personal travel desires with what is available locally.
"I keep hearing when I speak to agents and travelers about the desire for 'authentic' experiences. Travel agents know what their clients like, and agents need to know where they can help them find it on vacation."
For large and diverse states like California, it is especially important to educate travel agents, who the state tourism agency feels are the best distribution channel for developing personalized, curated itineraries. "If a traveler has only a week's vacation, they need someone who can help them pick through their options, and plan their travel time so that they can have the experiences they envision," Vigil said.
"People like the human connection, and we recognize that. We recognize that travel agents are not going away, like so many people predicted, and at the end of the day, people are trusting not only how agents make pre-trip travel planning efficient, but that they help travelers utilize their time during a trip efficiently."
The App can be downloaded in any app store by searching "California STAR" and is available online.
STAR succeeds California's first online training program
California launched its first travel agent online training program in 2015. Nearly 24,000 travel agents worldwide signed up, but only about 11,000 finished the program. Even more important, Vigil said, was the fact that agents saw the program as a means to an end. Once they received certification as a California expert, their 'lifecycle' of learning, and returning to the portal, was finite.
"We wanted to turn that database of 24,000 agents into a community of users. That's why we call STAR an 'engagement platform.' There is constantly new news in attractions, lodging, events, in California. We want our site to be a place where agents can learn up to date information real time. We want it to be a place where they can learn about their specialty, whether that is luxury, or family travel, or outdoor adventure travel, and see how they can curate a trip to California for their clients."
The new tool also allows agents to better service their clients real time, Vigil said. "A section of Highway 1 is closed now because of the mudslides. STAR can help agents offer suggestions so you can reroute travelers, but still provide clients with the same experience they were hoping to have in that region."
Vigil also noted the maps and images stored in the site's Toolbox section. "All of the content is shareable, whether an agent wants to use e-mail, Facebook Messenger, whatever. So if a client wants to drive from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara, the agent can tell them, 'Let me send you images of Santa Barbara and a map.' We've also just put up some virtual reality content for a few destinations, so now a client can get a quick feel for what the destination is about."
"If you are sitting with a client, and you have resources in the palm of your hand, how valuable is a tool as that?"
Visit California also is looking at ways for the app to host a discussion board, "where we can take themes that consistently come up with our agent partners, and recreate those into a FAQ section. We think that is a way to leverage the expertise in our database, and get agents to facilitate this knowledge sharing."
California developing agent rewards program tied to STAR
The next phase of marketing STAR to agents will be using incentives for completing training, Vigil said. "We're looking at anything from gift cards, to winning trips to California for agents and their significant others," he said.
Visit California is also talking to local destinations and travel suppliers to leverage the app for providing agent benefits. "A lot of different hotels, attractions, offer special rates for agents to come visit. There is not one resource to house all of that information. We are working with the industry throughout the state for a repository for these programs. And if you become a California STAR, you can earn all of these tickets, discounts, etc."
Finally, Visit California is developing plans for an April 2018 global STAR 'superfam,' where 60 STAR agents from around the world will be invited to California to experience the entire state. Details are still being developed around how agents will qualify and what the itinerary will be.