Editor's Note: Headquarters Happenings keeps you updated on the marketing and technology programs of major travel agencies, host agencies, travel agency consortia, cooperatives, travel networks and franchise groups.
In its fourth year of operations, the Canadian host agency The Travel Agent Next Door continues to augment its training and marketing programs while keeping an eye on expansion opportunities outside Canada.
The young agency also appears to be giving its Canadian competitors a run for their money. “We are already Canada’s second largest host (based on sales volume),” said founder Flemming Friisdahl.
Midway through this year, The Travel Agent Next Door was on track to double its sales volume from CA$41 million in 2016 to CA$82 million in 2017. In 2016 it turned the corner into profitability, a milestone that matters to its agents since the company shares profits with them.
Three core groups
Launched in March 2014 and headquartered in Toronto, Ontario, The Travel Agent Next Door hosts 285 agents and, through them, another 145 independent contractor agents. Its agents are located in every Canadian province except Quebec.
Friisdahl said he thinks the company’s business model is exportable, and already has identified two markets beyond Canada into which that he’d like to expand. He’s not ready to move on that ambition yet, or to talk specifics – not “until we have Canada completely nailed down,” he told Travel Market Report.
Fleming speaking at this year's Travel Agent Next Door annual conference in April, aboard Norwegian Escape.
The Travel Agent Next Door targets three core groups: agents whose annual sales range from CA$300,000 to CA$500,000 (and up), storefront agencies that do CA$1 million to CA$2 million in sales, and newcomers to retail travel.
Friisdahl attributed the early successes to a focus on helping agents grow their business. “We’re not built on having the most agents. We want to be built on having the best increase in sales per agent.”
A key differentiator for The Travel Agent Next Door, he said, is its high staff-to-agent ratio, about one staff member for every 11 or 12 of its 285 primary agent members. “That’s higher than anybody else in Canada. It means we’ve got a lot more resources for our agents.”
Beefing up training
As with other agency groups, The Travel Agent Next Door makes training and networking the focus of its annual national conference, held earlier this year aboard the Norwegian Escape. Additional training opportunities include weekly webinars, plus an annual road show, scheduled this year for November.
This summer, it introduced an online academy that combines its own educational materials with supplier trainings and educational content from the Association of Canadian Travel Agencies (ACTA). And earlier this year it launched a program that connects member agents with colleagues who share similar interests so they can support one another.
Looking ahead, Friisdahl hopes to expand agent development offerings with the addition of small group coaching. As it is, The Travel Agent Next Door employs two full-time trainers and dedicates a separate department to training members who are new to retail travel sales.
All new members, including experienced agents, receive individual attention while getting set up and trained in the host’s systems and marketing programs. Personal attention at the outset is especially important for experienced agents, Friisdahl said. “It’s someone that’s moved their career over to us, so we have a strong responsibility to make sure we help them.”
Every four weeks The Travel Agent Next Door runs a town hall-style conference call to review how things are going, discuss new initiatives and answer questions from member agents. Between 150 and 170 agents usually call in. “It’s our way of making sure that we’re transparent, and that there is always accessibility to anybody in our organization.”
The host agency’s proprietary marketing solutions, including multi-supplier direct-mail lifestyle campaigns, single supplier mailings and email marketing, are included in membership fees. All can be customized to reflect agents’ individual brands.
Primary agent members also get individually branded, mobile-friendly websites that include nine booking engines and thousands of pages of content. Friisdahl called the host’s website solutions for agents another core differentiator. The host’s own website also features a “find a travel agent” lead-generation tool.
Through its affiliation with TRAVELSAVERS and the Affluent Traveler Collection, The Travel Agent Next Door also gives its agents access to the print consumer magazine Journeys and the social media platform Social Connect. The Travel Agent Next Door has a social media guru on staff who works closely with its agents to help them make the best use of social media.
Other initiatives include a program that allows agents to reward clients with a referral fee to spend on their next trip, and trip giveaways that agents can use to build client lists.
In coming months, The Travel Agent Next Door expects to announce enhancements to its email marketing, as well as several other initiatives. (Friisdahl declined to discuss details, saying he prefers not to do so until new programs are ready to launch.) Beyond that, Friisdahl said, the plan is to “keep doing what we’re doing and just keep doing it better.”