Hosted Home-Based Agents: A Struggle to Get Supplier Support

by Marilee Crocker

This is the first of two parts on IC-supplier relations

The accelerated migration of retail travel consultants from storefront agencies to home offices has not only reshaped the travel agency landscape, it’s forced suppliers to rethink how they do business with an increasingly diffuse agent community.

Depending on who’s doing the counting, anywhere from 39% to 52% of the retail travel agency community today is composed of consultants who work from home––or virtual travel agents, as some prefer to be called.

At the same time, growing numbers of retail travel professionals, veterans and newcomers alike, are setting up shop as independents and affiliating with a national host agency or franchise.

Taken together, those two factors have made a significant portion of the travel agent community all-but invisible to suppliers, creating hurdles for agents and suppliers alike.

“The [supplier] reps don’t know who these home-based agents are. All they know is who the host agencies are,” said longtime industry member Nancy Peklo-Nosal, owner of World Encounters in Arlington Heights, Ill.

‘Really big shift’
For suppliers, the decline of brick and mortar agencies and the rise of hosted home-based agents has affected everything from how they connect with and support retail agents to how they track agent sales and even how they compensate their own sales reps.

“It’s been a really big shift in the industry, and I believe it’s caused all suppliers to re-evaluate how they go to market with the agent community,” said Hope Deschamps, director of sales for Paul Gauguin Cruises.

“It’s forced a little bit of a shakeup on our side to reach these agents,” added Deschamps, who started her own career as a travel agent 27 years ago.

Big challenge for suppliers
Finding ways to identify, connect with and meet the needs of independent agents who work from home has become a critical concern, suppliers told Travel Market Report.

“It’s one of the biggest challenges suppliers have,” said Jack Richards, president and CEO of Pleasant Holidays. “How do you get a hold of these people? How do you see them? How do you establish a working relationship with them?”

Theresa Scalzitti, national account manager for Royal Caribbean International, framed the issues in much the same way.

“With them being so spread, and some of them not being visible to us, how do you reach them to get your marketing message across? How do you reach them to train them? How do you reach them to support them to grow their business?”

More suppliers now recognize that doing so is of utmost importance.

“When you’re restricted to just brick and mortars, you are missing a huge opportunity,” said Paula Hayes, director of sales for the Globus family of brands.

Tracking the sale
Critical to the effort is being able to trace bookings to the individual seller, not just the seller’s host agency, and many suppliers are still figuring out how to do that, said Ann van Leeuwen, president of the National Association of Career Travel Agents (NACTA).

“Many of them aren’t equipped to track sales to the frontline seller, and that affects the independent agent,” she said. “How do they find that booking agent and go back to them to develop increased sales?”

These are crucial issues for NACTA, whose membership is overwhelmingly home-based (86%), with fully 62% of its members affiliated with either a host agency or a branded franchise.

Making progress
But there’s good news in this tale. Suppliers are making significant inroads in finding ways to identify and work with this sector.

“There’s been a tremendous improvement in that relationship,” said Jackie Friedman, president of the host agency Nexion.

Suppliers cited their participation in local, regional and national events where home-based agents are likely to be found, such as conferences hosted by NACTA and OSSN.

Some business development managers do things like host informal sessions for home-based agents at a neighborhood coffee shop or restaurant. They spread the word on social media and ask host agencies to invite their member agents in the area.

Suppliers have had to make significant structural changes too, and these have proved more challenging. But those who overcome the obstacles can see big results.

“Today the majority of people we do business with are home-based. It’s the fastest-growing segment of our travel agent business today, and we foresee that continuing,” said Richards.

Next time: Suppliers make big changes in order to reach independent agents

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