This is part one of a two-part series on how business travel agencies can successfully compete against the major players.
What are you selling, as a business travel agent? If you answered “tickets and reservations,” it may be time to find another career. Bigger agencies can easily snag your clients with bigger discounts.
If you can’t beat the top business travel agencies on fees and prices, your best alternative is to market the image of your agency, advises travel marketing consultant Nolan Burris.
Forget response marketing
One strategy to avoid is response marketing, that is, the use of pitches designed to elicit a response from potential clients.
Pitches such as, “We get Premier status for your travelers” or, “Our hotel partners give you free Internet,” attract high-maintenance, low-margin clients, according to Burris, president of Visionistics in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Potential clients who do call aren’t calling the agency; they’re calling the special deal. Once the deal disappears, so do the calls, Burris said.
Travel Market Report sat down with Burris to hear more of his ideas on how business travel agents can successfully compete in today’s environment.
How do you market image to a procurement department that is focused on price and features?
Burris: It’s about balance. You can sell your ability to obtain Premier status for a potential client’s travelers, but you have no control over whether that Premier status will have the same rights and regulations in the future. Six months from now, Premier status, the thing that got you the account, could cease to exist.
The same holds true for anything that comes from a third party, be it upgrades, change or cancellation policies waived, any perks that come from a supplier. Every time you sell a client based on something a supplier provides and controls, you put yourself at the mercy of the supplier.
Do the perks that suppliers offer have a place at all?
Burris: Those perks are definitely worth mentioning, but they should not be the focus. The focus is selling the image that you have the skills, the knowledge, the clout to make the perks happen. Today, the goodie might be a mileage upgrade, tomorrow it could a special arrangement on some ancillary fee that just appeared.
What’s the argument to convince procurement to pay a 20% premium to Agency B for “clout,” versus saving 20% in fees with Agency A?
Burris: We got that objection a lot, especially in the days when some corporate agencies weren’t yet charging fees. The response is to remind the client that the agency working for 20% less is going to have to do something to make up for the loss. And you back it up with examples.
Say Airline A has lower fares and Airline B has lower baggage fees. My response was to ask if the potential client’s current agent knows which airline is which – because we know and we know how to use that difference to save you money.
When the company has a team going to Chicago, Agency A, the one that charges 20% less, has to shave corners, and automatically buys Airline A. Agency B, which charges more, has the luxury of taking more time and digging deeper. So the agent asks: “Why the Chicago trip?”
“We’re presenting at a key trade show,” the client responds.
“So that means you have a booth to pack, right, and a few boxes of collateral?” you confirm. “Let’s book you on Airline B, with lower luggage fees.”
You just saved the client hundreds of dollars with one simple question. Only an agency that can afford to take the time and wants to take the time will ever ask. That’s the image you should be selling, not the fact that you can provide airline tickets.
Is procurement listening, or are they simply looking for reductions from last year?
Burris: The economic turmoil of the past couple of years offers even more of an opportunity to stress the overall value of a travel professional who really knows the job and not just the cheapest reservation taker. Accenture has stats showing that an effective, regularly updated and enforced travel policy can reduce travel expenditures by 20%.
The typical corporation doesn’t know how to write travel policy, because they don’t know the tricks of the travel game. A business travel agency does. An agency that is totally involved can help the client construct, update, and enforce policy that takes advantage of every trick there is and every trick that is developed.
Give us an example.
Burris: The typical corporation, if they have a travel policy, which most don’t, would say something like, “Our per diem is $125.” The problem is that in Boise, Idaho, I’m eating in the best restaurant in town and in New York, I’m barely scraping by. They do the same with hotels and rental cars without looking at their actual usage.
That one little thing, looking at a company’s actual travel patterns and basing per diems on where travelers actually go, can save 25% on average hotel costs.
Use social media but also brochures and fliers to drop these little nuggets on potential clients: “Did you know that geographically variable travel policies can save you 25% on hotel costs? We know how to do it.” That starts building the image.
That sounds like selling price, not image. How does a boutique agency compete against mega-agencies with a broader distribution base to reduce individual client costs?
Burris: You’re playing a different game, because the megas aren’t in the same business. The Amexes, the CWTs, the BCD travels are essentially in the business of tickets and reservations. If you look at a bigger picture than just tickets and reservations, you can beat them every time.
Next time: A Vancouver, British Columbia, business travel agency records 80% year on year growth through the recession — without posting a single price on its website.