When a luxury river cruise operator recently cancelled a France sailing but failed to offer a suitable alternative to Jackie Cross’s clients, the travel agency owner prevailed upon the supplier’s sales rep to make it right.
And he did, said a grateful Cross, founder of Refined Journeys in Fresno, CA. “He went to the head office, and they agreed to upgrade our clients and pay for three free nights in Paris. He had to fight for that.”
In short, the supplier’s sales rep was willing to stand up for Cross and her clients. That readiness is one of the key qualities that travel agents say makes a great supplier partner. Here’s a look at the other qualities that agents value most in their supplier partners.
Trust forms the foundation of great supplier partnerships, agents agreed.
“I go to Uniworld based on the characteristics and qualities [that suit] the client and trust in that brand, but when it comes to trusting how they’re going to deliver that product, there has to be fluidity,” Cross said. “That comes with the relationship you have with your supplier, and that obviously is the person who gives you a call or stops into your office.
“For me, that relationship is absolutely key – that I can call my supplier and they have my back, and that the trust I have in them is relayed to the customer on the other end, and that we all have the same goal – a happy returning customer. It’s knowing my representative will go to bat for me with the head office and represent me and not just their company and their company’s interests.”
For Kota Tabuchi, managing director, Africa, for Travel Beyond in Wayzata, MN, being able to trust that a supplier will “really put our clients’ interests first” is key to a great partnership.
“The delivery on the ground, the way they treat our customers, is a reflection of our business. It’s absolutely critical.” That’s one reason Travel Beyond tends to favor mom-and-pop and owner-operated suppliers. “They will put the interests of clients before profit,” he said.
Responsiveness is essential to establishing trust, agents said.
“We try not to bother our reps unless we have a great opportunity for them or we really need their help. But when we do, it’s really important that they get back to us, even if it’s, ‘Can I get back to you tomorrow?’” said Kari Thomas, CTC, president of Will Travel in Langhorne, PA. “We’re the ones with the customer in front of us. We need to get back to that customer quickly.”
In short, “it’s a relationship. As a long as you stay in communication, that helps with the trust.”
Another way supplier reps build trust is by being forthcoming when they can’t fulfill a request. “Sometimes it’s them telling me the hard stuff that helps me trust them,” said Thomas.
Tabuchi said he values a fast response time during the sales process. “If a supplier is able to turn around accurate quotes within 24 hours – the more information they can provide and a speedy turnaround of information – that really helps us in closing the sale.”
While a supplier’s product fit and brand reputation are elemental, personal rapport with a supplier’s BDM or sales rep is highly important to agents.
“Often it really comes down to that person-to-person relationship,” said Thomas. “It could sometimes just be a personality that matches with yours.”
Thomas said she especially appreciates it when a supplier rep reaches out to say, “ ‘Here’s how we can do business together.’ That means they want to have a partnership; they’re not just talking to me. It’s seeing eagerness from them.”
Many suppliers appear qualified on paper, so intangible qualities can be key differentiators, Tabuchi said. “A lot of times it boils down to who’s likeable, who’s an outstanding person or the likeability of a particular organization.
Great supplier partners help agents grow their businesses.
“The supplier has to recognize my commitment to them, and value and support that commitment, like when I ask if they will do some coop marketing with me and the answer is yes,” Cross said.
The best supplier BDMs are “always looking for opportunities to work together and increase our business together,” said Thomas.
“It’s one thing if they say, ‘Here’s a great product,’ another if they say, ‘I see that a skateboard shop just opened up around the corner from you. We have a great new adventure program that maybe you can tap into with them.’ It’s them caring about my business as much as about their product.”
Suppliers earn big points when they take proactive steps to help an agent’s client with a problem, to mitigate a negative situation or to enhance a client’s experience.
When one client was at a hotel where there was construction going on, for example, Thomas recalled that the manager called the guest to apologize and say, “Here’s what we can do.”
Cross said she depends on destination management companies to have the in-depth knowledge to suggest itinerary enhancements for the custom trips she designs for her high-end clientele. “I’m looking for the fine details, for the nuances that are going to make me shine.”
She also depends on local suppliers when there’s a problem in-country. “The reason I’m using a DMC is because I want the local contacts, so if something goes awry I have their support. They’re supposed to be the extension of you. They’re on the ground and servicing the needs of our customers.”
For Travel Beyond, especially in its Africa business, which constitutes about 70% of its volume, shared values are an essential foundation for supplier partnerships.
“We adhere to a strong sense of community and conservation, so companies that support community-based conservation initiatives are the ones we tend to support,” Tabuchi said.
He also seeks out suppliers that are “employee-centric,” as evidenced by a high employee- retention rate. “We like to work with companies that treat their employees well and ethically.”
Transparency is another core value for Travel Beyond, so it seeks supplier partners that itemize their price quotes “so we can be in turn transparent to our clients.”