It’s a question that has plagued travel agents for decades: How can we change consumers' perceptions of what a travel agent is or does? And, as people in the travel industry continue to scratch their heads trying to answer it, perhaps the greater opportunity lies in changing travel agents' perceptions of who they are.
You’re building a business, not just a bank account. Go beyond the booking of travel and think long-term. How well are you suited to adapt and evolve in a changing market? One thing that is constant about travel is its unpredictability. If you’re just booking travel, how different are you than an OTA?
For Steven Goulds, president and CEO of Goulds Travel in Clearwater, Florida, it also means working for your client long after the booking has been made. “We follow up to make sure their vacation went flawlessly, then handle any concerns they may have after the fact.”
If everyone around you knows what you do for a living, then you’ve got this tip mastered. If not, there’s still work to do.
“Travel is part of me, either on social media, driving a wrapped car or even when I send my IRS payment or water bill," said Gal. "I always include my business card. That is the one call from the IRS that you would want to get!”
Defining what sets you apart from an online booking agent is about educating the traveling public. “I will tell anyone that I am a travel agent and what we do that sets us apart from booking online,” added Goulds, who attributes 90 percent of his business success to word-of-mouth advertising. And, tooting your own horn comes down to both verbal and non-verbal activity.
“Non-verbally, we will wear name badges, hats, and other marketing and advertising materials whenever possible. And, I will pass out koozies [those branded insulating sleeves that keep a can or bottled drink cold] to all my friends and family, and send them to new clients for referrals, as well.”
This applies to your actions and messaging. Some might think these two can’t work hand-in-hand in customer service — and they would be wrong. It’s all about not settling for less just to make a sale. Clients that see your value will book with you, but you must be direct, yet kind, in your approach.
Gal adds: “I am a very forward person. I normally spend about 30 to 60 minutes with a potential client to first understand what they want and need. But, if they are looking for a Christmas break vacation for a family of six and hoping to spend $5,000 including air, I will be the first to say that it’s not a realistic budget and unfortunately I can’t help them.”
Gain insights from other industries
You’re not just a travel agent, you’re a small business owner. To maintain his agency, Goulds credits pulling a lot of his mentoring and team-building experience from his involvement in the real estate industry. He said his strength with excel spreadsheets comes from the finance sector and his customer service/relationship-building is from his time in hospitality.
“There needs to be a balance of education, personality, sales/marketing, and teamwork to flourish – otherwise, you’ll probably have a difficult time finding your footing in this industry.”
This directive also includes attending educational seminars, webinars, listening to podcasts and joining local community clubs like the chamber of commerce.
“The best networking is volunteering,” advises Johnson. “We all like to buy from people we know, like, and trust.” Johnson said this will give agents a head start, as you already share values with others in the group, which gives you a huge advantage. “I look at this as a long-game. It’s not about one booking or one transaction. It’s about building life-long relationships because those relationships will result in referral after referral after referral.”
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