It’s a fact of the digital age – consumers are never off line. As a result, travel agents are working 24/7, throughout the lifecycle of a journey. And they are looking for suppliers they can count on to work just as hard for their mutual clients.
“Travel agents are working around the clock to ensure their clients’ needs are met, making it more important than ever for agents to work with suppliers they can rely on and who will be available to them and their client 24 hours a day,” said Robert Ardino, vice president of sales at Auto Europe. He leads a team of more than 30 regional sales representatives in North America who work directly with travel agents every day.
“Travelers, especially younger ones, are comfortable using chat services and other digital communications in their personal lives, and it is crossing over into their travel lives,” said Michael Coletta, manager of research and innovation at PhocusWright. “So now, travel agents have to be online 24/7, communicating, taking service requests. If agents want to continue to provide enough value to their clients to distinguish themselves, digital communications are a really good way to keep those clients loyal."
Coletta said it is becoming a requirement to be responsive via Twitter and other channels. “For customer service, it’s very important to get on a handle and be there when travelers want to talk to you, especially while travelers are in destination,” he said.
This means leveraging the full array of digital communication tools available today, starting with direct cellphone access, and including everything from Facebook messenger to Twitter to chat services like WhatsApp, experts said.
Coletta noted that sometime around October 2016 there were more global users of chat apps than of social networks, with a forecasted 3.6 billion users by 2018.
Still, though, it all starts with real connections to real people, travel agents said.
Roy Twiste, managing director of sales and vendor relations at Tzell Park Avenue/Travel Leaders in New York, called the Auto Europe sales staff “extremely efficient and very responsive to our needs,” which leads to quicker sales to close business.
Stacy Small, CEO and founder of Elite Travel International in Maui, HI, cited a few small hotels whose general managers and sales reps have given her their personal cellphone numbers and instructed her to call or text them at any time, day or night.
“These are people who understand what I do for my clients, and literally live on their smart phones and answer emails and texts fast, or get us to the people we need,” Small said.
Small, who frequently copies in hotel general managers on emails to sales reps, said luxury hotel companies are “very well staffed and suited for the younger, on-the-go travel agents. But if a supplier says, ‘I am sending this to reservations,’ I don’t want to wait. I need a high-level person to work with my high-level clients.”
Client communications preferences vary
“One of our goals is to 'humanize' online channels (Web, Social, etc.) as much as possible by showing consumers that a person (travel agent) is waiting to have a conversation with them. We want to create a personal connection between consumers and our agents before they ever actually meet,” said Jeremy Van Kuyk, vice president, technology, Travel Leaders Group.
“As consumers become more and more tech savvy and require more online interactions versus in person conversations, our travel agents will need to be able to provide their expertise and services in an online marketplace. Consumer communication preferences are driving this change.”
Ruth Jeter, ACC, MCC, CTA and owner of Travel By Ruth on Long Island, NY, said that using digital communications “has actually lessened the stress for me. In the past, I hesitated to take time off because I was worried about not gaining a new client, or not being there if someone needed me. As a home-based agent working solo, it’s difficult to leave the office unattended. With the additional tools, I can at least keep in touch with clients, and if they have an issue they can contact me.”
Jeter has been utilizing Facebook Messenger for about a year. She’s also used Skype with clients in Germany and Singapore, who prefer it over telephone calls for cost reasons.
On one occasion, Facebook Messenger helped Jeter win a piece of business. “I was away on a cruise myself, and got an inquiry from a client through Facebook. The clients booked with me, paid in full and left two weeks later on their cruise. Had I not been able to reach them, I could have lost the sale.”
Beth Foss, CTC, MCC, MBA and president of My Travel Elf, Inc., in Naples, FL, says Facebook Messenger is “particularly useful for communicating with clients in other time zones, especially on the other side of the globe. They’re far more likely to have their phone with them and see that FB message, than catching an email right away.”
Foss said she prefers Facebook messenger over text messaging on her phone “because, to me, texting seems kind of cold and impersonal,” and Facebook messages “tend to be really short, unlike many emails, so I can respond right away with an equally short message. Then I’ll shoot them a detailed reply by email. They get that instant gratification, and I’ve again solidified in their mind that they have a friend that’s a travel agent.”
Not all suppliers get it
Many agents told TMR that some suppliers aren’t cognizant of what agents do to meet client demands and remain prosperous. “Agents who are successful are very, very busy right now,” said Josh Alexander, travel advisor at Protravel International, New York. “I increased my staff recently to keep up with the volume. But I don’t know if I would say some suppliers are doing that to keep up with us.”
Stacy Small and other agents said many popular travel suppliers in the cruise and tour industries still require agents to dial into a large call center.
“Every day, I am in front of my computer, Facebook Messenger is open. We’re constantly available to our clients. That is how we would hope suppliers would work with us. We get stalled when we are told to call a reservations line.”
When agents connect with Auto Europe’s call center they receive priority queuing and are routed to “the most seasoned rental specialists,” Ardino said. “Agents can also contact their regional sales representative to get their questions answered directly.”
At the very least, Small said, larger suppliers should be fully staffed to promptly answer via email. She has been bringing her concerns direct to the supplier C-suite lately, getting some verbal assurances that they are working toward better servicing for “the new, digital travel agent.”
Sometimes, Small said, they offer a dedicated phone number. “If you scream loud enough, they will add a dedicated email address.”
“My agency is so busy that communicating via email is way more efficient than making me call in. I value a supplier who values my business enough to take the time to put something in writing and make it easy for us to share that with our clients,” Small said.
Alexander at ProTravel also is seeing “some suppliers working towards that.” He noted one supplier that has a website that provides documentation for a client to review. “They’ll send the clients a link to all of their information. When my client clicks on that link, it sends a message to me that my client reviewed the URL.”
“Suppliers are using the same approach to humanize the online world by incorporating virtual assistants, virtual concierge systems, voice recognition tools, Artificial intelligence and interactive online support,” said Van Kuyk.
Some agents find the reluctance of some suppliers to provide direct access to their employees confusing, since many of them are very actively communicating directly with their clients.
PhocusWright’s Coletta noted how hotels are providing chat services to guests when they are on property. “If guests need something in their hotel room, instead of picking up the phone, they’ll chat. Younger travelers are using messaging apps to communicate with their friends, and that translates naturally to their travels, and hotels and resorts are responding to that,” he said.