What is far cheaper than advertising, yet can give a travel agent name recognition and credibility on a local and even national scale?
The answer is public relations.
While most often thought of as sending out press releases to the news media, public relations also encompasses staging local events, community volunteer efforts and more.
“It goes beyond getting your name in the paper. It’s an art,” said Richard Earls, publisher of Travel Research Online, while moderating a panel discussion on Understanding the Power of Public Relations at the recent Home-Based Travel Agent Forum in Las Vegas.
“It’s not expensive, but it is labor intensive. It’s your personality on display. It’s the key to guerilla marketing – especially in an industry like ours that is so face-to-face dependent.”
Agent as media source
Among travel sellers who put PR to use on a regular basis is Chuck Flagg, co-owner of the Flagg Agency in Canton, Ga., who is routinely quoted in travel-related stories in USA Today and other news outlets.
“Exposure spreads,” he said, explaining to the audience that his quotes in a USA Today article prompted a phone call from a local TV broadcaster who interviewed him on the air about the impact of the Concordia tragedy. “It raised my profile and it didn’t cost me a dime. An ad would have cost a fortune.”
Research media outlets
Becoming a source for news outlets demands some research, starting with finding out who the editors are that are responsible for travel or transportation coverage, according to Flagg. He recommends starting with local newspapers or other outlets serving the agent’s own community.
“Chances are they will have space that needs to be filled,” he said. “I will pitch them three paragraphs on what I’m doing or about a trend that I’ve identified.”
Flagg makes it a practice to communicate with his media contacts every eight weeks or so. “It’s important to stay top of mind.”
Getting the word out
An effective way to generate publicity for your business is to write a press release and send it out to media outlets, Flagg said, adding that the subject can range from a travel trend to something that you’ve accomplished in your business or in the community.
Whether you’re writing a press release or sending an email to a media source, you need to make sure it conveys exactly what you want to say, advised Barbara Oliver, CTA, owner of All Together Now Travel in Valencia, Calif.
“It could appear in print exactly as you wrote it, so you have to keep that in mind,” she said.
While you want to convey the important information, press releases that are too long run the risk of not being read by editors, advised John Frenaye, editor of Travel Research Online.
“A press release should be no longer than one page – and put some ‘zing’ into it,” he said.
Press releases should be sent as Word documents, not as PDFs, and should also be pasted into the email itself, said Frenaye, a former travel agency manager who is frequently quoted on travel topics in major news outlets.
Help a reporter
Another way to become a source for the media is to sign on with www.helpareporter.com, a website dedicated to linking up journalists with expert sources, Flagg said. Journalists looking for sources to comment on a certain topic or event can log onto the site and search for experts in an array of categories, including travel.
“You can sign in to be a source in their lifestyle section. A reporter will get pitches from that source,” Flagg said.
Honesty is best policy
When contacted by a journalist, honesty is the best policy, Frenaye said.
“Sometimes a reporter will come to you with a sensationalist angle, but if you think there is really nothing to it, tell them,” he said. “And don’t pretend to be an expert on something, if you’re not.”
In that situation, referring the reporter to another source who is an expert on the topic is the thing to do, said Flagg. “If you do this, it will come back to you tenfold,” he said. “People really appreciate being helped out.”
Promoting agent value
Flagg, who was among agents contacted by journalists for comments in the aftermath of the Concordia disaster, said he did not play into any preconceived notions that the tragedy was hurting cruise business. “I said my cruise bookings were great. I wasn’t afraid to be positive.”
In fact, he took the opportunity to explain why consumers are better off booking cruises through travel agents.
“If there is a disaster, I emphasize how the travel agent can help the traveler,” he said. “The cruise line can’t help you alone. They may have to put 1,800 passengers into a hotel at once,” he said.
Putting the results to work
Once an agent is quoted in an article or gets a press release or story in print or online, the next step is to make it visible.
“Scan the article and post it on your website,” said Flagg.