For Ontario Agency, Hybrid Strategy Is Solution to Internet Competition

by Marilee Crocker
Richard Vanderlubbe
christopher

In the past decade, the Canadian leisure travel agency tripcentral.ca has invested millions of dollars into proprietary software that makes it easy for consumers to shop for and book vacations on its website.

Yet the closing ratio for the agency’s online sales is still low, especially when compared to the success rates of the 100-plus travel professionals who staff tripcentral.ca’s 25 brick and mortar offices.

“The fact is when we get someone on the phone or in front of us, it’s just so much easier to make a sale,” said Richard Vanderlubbe, president of the Hamilton, Ontario agency, whose walk-in offices are spread across Ontario, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

But tripcentral.ca’s web strategy has have never focused solely on driving unassisted online bookings, said Vanderlubbe, who will be a featured presenter at Travel MarketPlace.

Instead, tripcentral.ca has invested heavily in integrating its online-offline sales processes in order to create a smooth shopping experience, “where the consumer can walk in and talk to an agent and then leave and continue with us online and come back to that agent, or whatever they choose,” Vanderlubbe said.

Online to offline––and back again
Many travel agents will tell you that their websites are there to entice prospective customers to contact a live travel consultant, who then initiates a more-traditional sales process.

But at tripcentral.ca, the goal is for the flow of business to go both ways––from online to offline and from offline to online.

“It really is a hybrid solution,” said Vanderlubbe, who in 1989 founded the single-location agency that eventually became tripcentral.ca. (In 2005, Vanderlubbe sold the firm’s majority shares to Transat AT.)

Like other agency websites, tripcentral.ca’s site prompts visitors to contact the agency with standard calls to action––prominently displayed “call now” phone numbers, a live chat feature that lets shoppers connect online with a live agent, plus bios and contact information for all of its travel consultants.

But the prompts also go in the other direction.

Hybrid solution
When a customer walks into a tripcentral.ca brick and mortar location and sits down with an agent, or contacts one of the agency’s travel sellers by phone, the agent will follow up by sending the customer a portfolio of suggested vacation products that can be booked on tripcentral.ca’s website.

“The various products we have––flights, hotels, packages, cruises, tours––they’re all embedded into our agent system, so it’s the same inside as outside,” Vanderlubbe said.

If the customer chooses to self-book online at tripcentral.ca, the agent still gets credit for the sale. “We can push the consumer to the site to look, and we would track any purchase back to the agent.

“As far as I know we’re the only agency out there that’s truly hybrid in this way––where the website is not competing directly with the agency or with the traditional agent,” he added.

Hitting the target
The strategy is built on a model of the buying cycle that looks like a target with a bull’s eye at its center. The bull’s eye is the booking.

Each concentric ring outside the bull’s eye represents a different stage in the buying cycle––from the first step, when someone is vaguely pondering a vacation idea, to the budgeting phase, when a customer or shopper compares costs of different vacations, to the final decision phase, which today typically involves looking at online customer reviews.

Among the features on tripcentral.ca’s website that speak to those stages are pricing grids that display dozens of options for different types of vacations.

There’s also a “trip matchmaker,” which returns vacation suggestions to consumers based on their prioritized preferences for factors such as trip duration, budget and meal plan.

And there are video reviews of individual properties by tripcentral.ca agents, as well as written customer reviews.

Once customers are in the agency’s database, they’re sent alerts when the price changes on a vacation they’ve expressed interest in.

“My point is always looking at the entire buying cycle and saying how does the web play into the consumer buying process all the way through,” said Vanderlubbe.

A tough environment
Tripcentral.ca’s online sales are growing, especially for low-risk transactions like air and hotel bookings and increasingly for inclusive package vacations, which are strong sellers in Canada.

But even those sales aren’t pure unassisted online bookings.

“They may have completed it that way, but the whole sales process still involves speaking with people,” Vanderlubbe said. At the end of the day, “the agent touch, the agent experience, is still very relevant.”

“The trouble is that consumers are going on this site and that site, calling this agent and that agent,” he added. “If you’re not diligent with your sales process or have a loyal clientele, it’s a tough game. It can kind of be random where they end up buying.”

Tripcentral.ca has bet heavily on a strategy that it hopes will take at least some of the randomness out of the equation.

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