Being a successful travel agent increasingly calls for a professional to be focused on finding, creating and communicating customer value. But building and growing a business also requires marketing, customer service and booking transactions.
These two critical paths can feel overwhelming at times for the travel professional, as both can place huge demands on their schedule. According to panelists at one educational session at the American Society of Travel Agents’ (ASTA) Global Convention in San Diego this August, a balance can be struck if agents learn to automate and streamline the functions that technology can manage.
A good CRM is a must, along with email and social media marketing
Summer Corbitt, sales and marketing director for the host agency network with Uniglobe Travel Center, strongly recommended that agents find a good customer relationship management (CRM) program as the baseline of their efficiency efforts.
“Clients still want customer service, but it’s hard to make sure you catch everyone, and follow up with everyone when the volume of calls increases, without a good CRM," Corbitt said. "You need to find a tool that makes you more efficient, so you can spend more time connecting with clients.”
A good CRM system, she added, will allow you to take detailed notes about a client and the various conversations you have with them. (She uses Contactually.com.) “You should be able to see all of the emails you’ve exchanged. It should tell you if you haven’t heard from them in three days, and prompt you to follow up. And it should integrate with your marketing.”
“A lot of travel agents tend to neglect the marketing side. If you don’t have time to invest in getting more business, you need to make the time,” said Corbitt. “The great thing about technology is it has become more efficient, so there are things you can do today that you couldn’t do five years ago.”
When it comes to marketing through social media, Corbitt recommends Facebook for its analytics and ability to target clients based on what they are saying on the social media platform and where they go on other websites.
Jason Holland, president and owner at Travel Simplicity in York, Pa., uses MailChimp for email, and “everything from Facebook messenger, to text, to Skype” for marketing and communications.
He adds value in his communications by integrating maps from Google Maps. “I can create custom Google maps for clients, where it becomes their personal guidebook while they are traveling. I can populate it with things I think they will enjoy.”
Consumer booking tools are superseding the GDSs
Other panelists debated the merits of booking through a traditional GDS, versus using consumer tools their clients are already familiar with and using anyway.
Travel Simplicity doesn’t use a traditional GDS, said Holland. He has been in travel for nine years, after previously working in home theaters and electronics, so he considers himself relatively tech-savvy. “Many of the consumer tools out there are more helpful and easier to use,” he said.
Corbitt agreed. “They are more sleek and more efficient” than most traditional GDS interfaces, she said. The industry needs to bring its products “up to a more modern booking tool.”
John Cruse, chief operating officer of Balboa Travel, Inc., in San Diego, also called for a better front-end interface for today’s agents. “There is a void in the technology side for delivering a solid booking platform for the agents to use so they have the information travelers want," Cruse said. "Today, content is too fragmented, while the traveler’s demands continue to escalate.”
“When I started, agents had the information travelers wanted, and that drove the need to use a good travel agent," he added. "Today, travelers often have more information than we have, and that devalues what agents provide and agencies can deliver. If we can’t get better about it as an industry, it is going to hurt us.”
In addition, Cruse said, “there are too many third-party applications that agents are required to use [with a traditional GDS] to search and complete a transaction. The search and booking process has gotten too complex and there is too much room for error now."
Cruse explained how it recently took six months to ramp up a new corporate agent to take reservations on the phone on their own, because of this complexity. “As technology changes, it’s going to be key to getting a platform that can change with the times and get agents on that system quickly.”
Choose technology that supports your client base
Agents need to understand the core brand promise of their agency and choose their options based on delivering that promise to their clients, panelists agreed. Because Balboa has such a large corporate base, “our technology is focused on creating and communicating savings,” Cruse said.
Holland noted how picking through the best tech options can be a large obstacle for agents. “It can be exceptionally overwhelming,” he said. Additionally, the dilemma of making a choice is complicated by how a new technology tool will integrate with other tools you already use. Choosing poorly can end up making you less efficient, Holland cautioned.
“When I updated my smart phone recently, it didn’t update across the board,” Holland said. He is an Apple fan because “when I put something into my phone, it updates across everything, from my iPad to my laptop.”
To keep up on the latest software offerings, Corbitt subscribes to a number of newsletters, including Hubspot, a developer and marketer of software products for inbound marketing and sales; and Skift, an online travel publication with a heavy focus on technology.
The one commitment agents need to make to their business is a willingness to change, Holland said. “The businesses that are failing and going downhill are the ones that aren’t innovating. They’re afraid of the new technology, instead of evaluating it and integrating it into their business.”