Specialty Agents: Don’t Forget the Big Picture

by Daniel McCarthy

About one-third of all travel agents categorize themselves as specialty agents – those who are selling a specific niche. And while specialization is one way agents can distinguish themselves from others—and from the OTAs—there’s a danger in picking an area so narrow that it becomes increasingly difficult to find clients.

Agents with a passion for a particular area are already on the right path to becoming successful specialty agents, according to Steve Gillick, president of Talking Travel.

But they can go wrong by trying to sell their niche interest with too narrow a focus instead of taking in the big picture for that specific market.

“It’s like going to visit the trees but not noticing that they are part of the forest,” Gillick said.

Examples of this mistake: Choosing to sell trips to morning food markets rather than culinary travel or selling excursions to photograph zebras rather than safari trips.

To get the full benefit of selling a specialty, agents need to recognize that they are selling not just a trip, but a type of trip, and they should market themselves as an expert in that category, Gillick said.

Look at the big picture
While there’s a danger if selecting a specialty that’s too focused on one niche, there are ways of testing the waters to see if there’s a sustainable business in that niche.

One way is to determine how—and where—people or groups interested in the specialty communicate.

Searching Google or social networking groups for the specialty can lead to clubs or associations where like-minded people gather to talk. Getting an idea of the number of people can be helpful, said Gillick.

Another method of expanding the idea is to use a mind-map, he added.

“Put your narrow specialty in a circle in the middle of the page and then add on branches for every associated idea you and your team can come up with.”

Agents should then view the map and see that they are selling the tree rather than the branches.

Get creative
While traditional and non-traditional marketing—including social media--might be the thing that springs to mind for specialty agents searching for clients, there are other approaches to building a client list for a specialty.

Finding clients for an interest like culinary travel or African safaris might be as easy as going to the agency’s database and finding information on the agency’s current client roster.

If agents ask the right questions during their initial communication with those clients, the information should be there.

Gillick also advised agents to be extremely active with that current client base, using it to build new prospects.

“You might wish to put together a focus group to ask those clients about their specific preferences but also their thought about the narrow specialty you may have in mind,” he said.

If there’s an interest from the focus group, agents can develop it further with an online ad, newspaper notice or press release – all of which will help create a buzz for the specialty.

Take it a step further by creating educational workshop about the subject or countries involved in the specialty, Gillick suggested.

Don’t be afraid to admit fault
When an agent’s specialty isn’t paying off, it might be time to reconsider his or her choice of specialty.

“Clients may love what you are doing but if you’re not in business to service their needs—and the needs of their referrals—then you’re going down the wrong road,” said Gillick.

A lot of success that specialty agents have comes from work done before entering the market, Gillick said.

“No one should be entering a business project without having completed a business plan that focuses on how much revenue will be generated, how many clients are required to generate that revenue and what is the time line in putting together this project,” he said.

When an agency is losing money and having trouble finding clients, it is probably time to either find a new specialty, on broaden the scope of the specialty, because the only way to serve clients is to be profitable.

“That profit keeps the business alive,” Gillick said. “This in turn adds confidence to clients who want a reliable business.”

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