In my column last week I wrote about how professional associations like ASTA and The Travel Institute are working to promote the value of travel agents to consumers. Consumer awareness of the travel agent trade has long been a grating issue among agents, who believe their profession has been relegated to the past by consumer media.
The fact is, however, that a number of groups beyond the professional associations have been working diligently to get the word out about the value of booking travel through a travel agent. These are the large, well-financed travel-agency consortia and cooperatives that dominate the agency business today.
Yes, they have different strategies and goals, but in the end any promotion of the travel-agency trade can only benefit all travel agents, not just those who are members of a specific group. So here’s a snapshot of what some of these large groups are doing, as well as the different approaches they take.
Ensemble Travel Group
Georganne Shirk, vice president-marketing, North America for agency cooperative Ensemble, says the group’s corporate websites in the United States and Canada promote the use of an Ensemble member travel agent and direct consumers to search for and contact an Ensemble agency based on travel style, travel interest, and travel destination.
“Our agencies and agents have filled out profiles with their specializations, generating leads for our members,” Shirk says. “We continue to climb the Google rankings into the Top 10 with most of our targeted key words in different regions. We now average over five leads (contact form submissions) per day going out directly to our Ensemble agencies.”
In addition, Ensemble’s corporate website features an explanation of “Why use a travel agent?” in an easy-to-read format with the story of “Tim and Tom.” Ensemble’s corporate Facebook and LinkedIn pages also include articles highlighting the importance of using a travel agent, so Ensemble members can share them on their agency social-media pages.
Ensemble’s destination weddings and honeymoons specialist program, called DestinationVows, focuses on travel-agent education and consumer lead generation. An annual magazine, distributed by Ensemble agency member agents at bridal shows and through consultations, features editorial and advertising with tips and trends, and highlights the extra value a travel agent can provide.
The websites, DestinationVows.com and DestinationVow.ca, highlight the importance of using a travel specialist to plan these important events.
“These SEO-optimized websites draw consumers with compelling editorial and generate leads through a search engine, allowing brides to select their ideal Ensemble-certified destination wedding and honeymoons specialist through specialist profiles,” Shirk says. “Specialists can also use these sites to generate leads on their own, with site personalization and links to the agency’s website.”
Ensemble’s print and digital marketing pieces and publications are designed to highlight the value-add of an Ensemble member agency, according to Shirk. “Whether the collateral focuses on a promotion, destination or niche travel style, the agent’s approach is always informative with cost savings and ease-of-booking in mind, plus each is personalized with the agency’s own brand,” she says. Finally, Ensemble provides customized press releases on relevant topics to its agency members so they can use with their local media and clients.
Travel Leaders Group
Steve Loucks, chief communications officer for Travel Leaders Group, the giant company that owns Vacation.com, Travel Leaders Franchise Group, Results, Nexion, Tzell Travel and ProTravel International, among other agency groups, says “promoting the value of travel agents—and those under our umbrella specifically—is ‘job one’ for us within Travel Leaders Group.”
Loucks says Travel Leaders’ PR team works closely with trade media, but most of its focus is on communicating the value of its agents and their expertise with consumer news media. For example, a Jan. 18 USA Today story quotes Loucks as saying State Department travel warnings are a major reason consumers should seriously consider using a travel agent professional to book their travel.
“Travel agents do more than book your travel,” Loucks told USA Today. “They act as a safety net for you until the time you return home safely by keeping abreast of ongoing issues that might impact your trip as you’re traveling. While the need to get a client out of a volatile situation abroad is thankfully rare, it does occur.”
Loucks says Travel Leaders’ goal of effectively conveying the value of agents through positive PR is one of the primary reasons the group continually surveys its agents on issues of concern to the traveling public. “It’s also why we respond forcefully to negative news stories that try to stereotype agents or characterize them as somehow being antiquated,” he says. “We work to develop and nurture relationships with the consumer media so they understand the broad range of impeccable talent under our umbrella and then when warranted, we match them with the most appropriate and/or authoritative agent expert to interview.”
Travel Leaders also works to educate its agents on how to position themselves, including bullet points from media-training classes that provide elevator speeches on agents’ inherent value. These points include:
1. We are advocates for our clients. We provide “peace of mind” and are there for our clients every step of the way, from the beginning through the time they return home.
2. We save travelers time and money. We maximize and protect their investment.
3. We provide both expertise and a human touch.
Nicole Mazza, chief marketing officer for travel-agency consortium TRAVELSAVERS, believes the trade overall could do a much better job of raising consumer awareness. “A lot of consumers are still very confused,” she says. “They buy into some of the hype that they can be their own travel professional. I don't think the industry trade does enough.”
For its part, TRAVELSAVERS works to support the brands of its travel-agency members and ensure there is consumer-awareness messaging in all their communications, Mazza says. “Any lead generation we do for them includes the value proposition of a travel agent,” including such newsstand publications as The Affluent Traveler, a luxury travel magazine produced by TRAVELSAVERS’ parent company, which actively promotes the value of travel agents.
TRAVELSAVERS also provides its agency members with resource centers that include press-release templates, issue topics for consumer-media interviews, and tips on how members can better position themselves to work with the media. “We’re not spending millions of dollars to promote TRAVELSAVERS,” Mazza says, “but we are promoting the value of our individual travel-agency members.”
Mazza says TRAVELSAVERS takes any opportunity it can from a public relations standpoint to get out the message about the value of agents. “We pitch articles to different consumer outlets and we do a lot of PR on the value of our agencies and how we see trends in the industry,” she says. “We get called quite a bit by the media to speak about trends and we take any opportunity we have to direct them to travel experts in the field.”
On the other hand, Mazza feels there’s a lot more that can be done to promote the value of travel agents, particularly to drive home the message that being a travel agent is a rewarding career. “In hospitality schools in general, travel agents are not even in the curriculum,” she says.
At least one member agency recently started its own travel school, because of the lack of good candidates for jobs. “There is a very strong need out there and being a travel agent is a viable opportunity today,” she says. “Unfortunately there are so many organizations that don't do a good job of vetting people for the profession.”
Misty Belles, director of global public relations for consortium Virtuoso, also says much of her time and PR strategy centers on educating consumers about the benefits of using a travel advisor. “Our core message is that travel advisors provide advice, access, advocacy, and accountability, which is impossible to replicate online,” she says. “Last year we amassed more than 25 billion global media impressions as a result of these efforts, including multiple segments on CNBC's Squawk Box and NBC's Today Show.”
Belles says Virtuoso also referred its travel-agent members as expert sources for 90 media opportunities in 2015, which led to mentions in such outlets as The New York Times, NBC News, Yahoo! Travel, Travel+Leisure and Vogue, among others. This year’s Virtuoso Week “hosted 60 journalists from six countries, allowing us to showcase our advisor talent before a prestigious group of media,” she says.
Virtuoso also uses its own marketing channels, such as Virtuoso Life magazine, virtuoso.com, email campaigns, and social media channels to tout the services that its advisors provide and the experiences they're able to create for clients. “From verified ratings and reviews on our site to client interviews in our magazine, we are consistently telling the story of how working with a travel advisor transforms the travel experience,” Belles says. “This messaging generates more than 20 million additional consumer impressions annually.”
New for this year Virtuoso is adding media training for its member-agency owners and managers, and providing them with multiple press-releases templates—including one touting why to use a travel advisor. “These tools are intended to build consumer awareness for our members in their local markets,” Belles says.
“Additionally, we just launched a five-part prospecting campaign, which will deploy each week for five weeks, on the ‘Five Reasons to Use a Travel Advisor,’ ” Belles says. “This five-week campaign will run every quarter, reaching leads that have come to Virtuoso.com and who don't already have an advisor, plus hundreds of thousands of agency prospects. As always, these will be advisor-personalized and agency branded.”