Online Booking Sites vs. Your Agency: Preparing for Battle

by Tammy Levent
Tammy Levent
tammy levent

Following is the latest in a series of columns by travel agent, entrepreneur and business strategist Tammy Levent

It’s no secret that there are dozens of ways for people to book their travel online and each time a new travel website pops up travel agents get scared.

The frightening reality is that when someone decides to sidestep the use of a agent by booking their own flights, hotels cruises or whatever else they may need, it is taking money out of  agents’ pockets.

With the large advertising budgets of websites like Priceline, Expedia and TripAdvisor, and their ability to sell someone a ticket at any hour of the day, how then can the travel agent compete?

Focus on service
First and foremost agents should focus on creating the best service possible for clients and prospective clients. An agent’s website should be filled with lots of free relevant content that lets customers know that you know your stuff.

When the phone rings agents should answer it or have an answering service take care of the call instantly. When issues arise handle them promptly. Show clients that the benefit of working with an individual agent over the onlines is that they have access to a real live person that is working for them on their behalf.

Don’t charge hidden fees.

A lot of people don’t realize the onlines are doing this—charging hidden fees that with every booking pumps up their bottom line. Be transparent with customers making everything crystal clear.

Selling what clients will really get
Remember that what you are selling is what the client will actually get. Did you know that on Priceline’s website there is a clause that states what you buy may not in fact be what you get? Here is exactly what it says:

Depending upon which Priceline.com hotel reservation service you use, you may or may not be able to select your room type and number and type of beds. Room assignments are based on hotel availability and are at the hotel's discretion. We cannot guarantee a non-smoking room. If you have special requests (including, for example, preferences for smoking or nonsmoking rooms, a specific room, particular bedding, floor location, closeness to an elevator, connecting rooms, or pet accommodations), you must call the hotel and verify that special requests can be met after you have made your booking. Since Priceline.com has no control over which room a hotel will assign to you, Priceline.com cannot accommodate special requests in advance of your booking and cannot guarantee that special requests will be met.   

Similar clauses are in the terms and conditions of other travel booking sites as well. When a client books with an agent they know that agent can call the hotel and take care of their needs on their behalf.

And they also know that if for any reason there is a change the agent will advocate for them to ensure they still get what they paid for.

Online risks
Keep in mind that when people use online booking sites they are at a greater risk of being “walked” and/or being given discount service.

In a recent article by Jacob Tomsky, former front desk clerk at a New York City hotel and author of the book Heads in Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality, Tomsky said “Reservations made through internet discount sites are almost always slated for our worst rooms…Since we have no reason to assume internet guests will ever book with us again, unless our discount is presented to them, it truly makes business sense to save our best rooms for guests who book of their own volition.”

Tomsky continued, “A guest is more likely to get walked if: 1. He booked using Expedia, hence he has a deeply discounted rate and is less important…” What is being walked exactly? It’s being sent to another hotel with a comparable room.

Price match guarantees
Lastly, and perhaps most important, offer your customers a price match guarantee.

Most tour operators will work with agents to match the quote customers find if you can provide proof of pricing. Usually all agents will need as proof is a screen shot of the page that shows that price found online.

Know in advance that this could cause stipulations with your commission. However, this at least gets the customer to book with you and could lead to more business with that person in the future.

Now you are giving your customer the supreme level of service that comes with working with an individual—and the price they want. There is no reason for the customer not to book with you!

In the end competing against the onlines is just like competing against fellow agents.

Show potential customers why they should keep coming back and you will have a solid edge over the online booking sites every time.

Tammy Levent is the CEO of Elite Travel, an award winning full-service travel agency that has been in business for 20 years. She is also the founder of the Travel Agent’s Success Kit that teaches the agents of today how to succeed in being travel entrepreneurs. Contact her at: tammy@elitetravelgroup.net.

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