When Tripology first launched a couple of years ago, you couldn’t go to a single industry event without hearing the company and its new lead-based system lauded. Since then TripAtlas has entered the lead generation field, as have a handful of lesser-known Web sites. And while some agents continue to rave about the leads they’ve bought that have converted into bookings, the buzz is growing that most of the leads don’t pan out.
One agent, a TripAtlas user who wished to remain unnamed, told Travel Market Report that lead-generation systems are a gamble.
“It’s good if you book,” she said, adding that an agent can spend a lot of money with no guarantee of new business. “Sometimes it is very frustrating as often you never hear back from anyone after purchasing their lead.”
The worst part, she told Travel Market Report, was that the consumers seeking bids often steal the travel agent’s work and then book online.
“Most people don’t really want an agent,” she said. “They are shopping for quotes and advice.” Additionally, they often have unrealistic budgets.
Despite these obstacles, the travel agent said she plans to stick with TripAtlas. Since she began using the system only two leads have converted into bookings. However, both were for weddings, and therefore brought in more bookings.
Roxanne Boryczki, president of AZ Trails Travel, also told Travel Market Report that leads she’s purchased from Tripology have taken the information she’s sent and gone to book with someone else.
“I was very excited when I started with the program,” she said. “We tested it for about three months. I must have purchased about three dozen leads in that time where I felt we could compete on our expertise and services, as well as our specialty niches. What I found, is that we booked maybe two to three of those leads. When it come down to the follow-up we had feedback from people that they took our information and went to a travel agent closer to their home.”
Sometimes the leads don’t even plan to travel and are just seeking information.
“One lead was a lady who had a travel Web site with a section on Africa and she just picked my brain,” said Connie Ebright, owner of Ebright Travel. “She never intended or planned to go on safari.”
Another lead was for a college student who needed information for a class project.
“I provided him with lots of info and photos… I worked my tail off for him, unaware of the real reason he wanted so much info on safaris and Africa. Until the very end he and his wife both acted like they were going to book a safari with me. I probably made over 20 long distance phone calls to him and sent him over 200 e-mails.”
Competing on Price
AZ Trails Travel’s Boryczki also told TMR that most of the leads wanted her agency to compete on price, a common complaint among agents who have trialed lead-generation systems.
“We don’t do that at my agency. We are price competitive and have vendors who will price match, but to go through that much work for possibly a one-time only booking from a client we don’t know well, it just isn’t worth my agents spending their time on that type of business,” she said.
Jerry Vaughn, president and CEO of Inspired Journeys, Inc. agreed.
“I have used Tripology, Respond.com, CruiseReport.com and TripAtlas in the past and discontinued all of them. Quite frankly we didn’t find any of them productive enough to justify the expense.”
Vaughn told TMR his agency tracks the source of all its sales and lead purchasing proved to be the least cost effective method they used.
“In any of the lead purchase systems, you are competing almost always on price alone. That is the very structure of their system and really how they market themselves to the consumer who is looking for a cruise.”
Ebright added that most of the consumers who tend to use lead-based sites are shopping the Internet for rock-bottom prices.
“People who shop on the Web send the very same inquiry to 20 or 30 other agents and Web sites. By the time they get everything back from the agents, they are so confused they do not know what they have and they just take the lowest price.”
And like Vaughn, she also felt the systems were too expensive for what she got – she said most of her leads were $20 and up.
“Only my very first lead actually turned into a booking and that was when leads were very inexpensive – like $5 each. The other prospective clients I bought leads for all had excuses why they were no longer interested or were not pursuing a safari at this time. I just did not find them valuable or worth the cost.”
But while Vaughn advised all agents to avoid lead-based systems, Boryczki said such systems are probably good for agents just starting out who are trying to build their client base. However, she also said, she’s spoken with other agents who have raved about the business they have landed from lead-based systems.
“Maybe I just had bad timing,” she said.
One such agent is Kristen Hernandez, CTA, owner/manager of Knot Just Honeymoons, an avid user of Tripology.
“I’ve had nothing but super positive experiences with Tripology,” she told Travel Market Report.
While she agreed that price does play a part in the bidding process, she has found she can compete successfully by selling herself first and the requested trip second.
“The competition is not as bad as I initially expected. There is definitely a competition aspect when it comes to pricing, however, I have found that more than a good price, most of the customers want an agent to listen and be sympathetic to their situations.”
She added, “I have found that the more you respect your customers and their concerns, it doesn’t matter if you’re competing with two agents or 10.”
She cited an example of a woman who was trying to narrow down her choice of three Tripology agents, incuding herself. The prospective client was interested in hosting a family reunion cruise and was unhappy with one of the other agents she was working with. In particular she didn’t like that the agent kept pushing her for a credit card, even though the sailing wasn’t until 2011. She felt the agent was trying to scare her into making a hasty decision.
Hernandez said she spent time with the woman on the phone explaining how the cruise industry works. The woman was so pleased Hernandez took time to listen to and explain everything that although her prices were above the other agents, the woman decided to choose Hernandez as her agent.
Hernandez said that her conversion rate for leads is approximately 50%, and added that out of every ten leads, six or seven respond, even if just to tell her they’ve chosen another agent.
In order to avoid competing on price, as well as avoiding the risk of having itinerary suggestions stolen, Hernandez told TMR she doesn’t initially respond to leads with prices.
“I know in the back of my mind that this same customer is getting multiple e-mails from agents. What can I say that will get and keep their attention? I figure, I need to sell myself first because I want them to buy from me for years to come… My first contact e-mail is about me and the company, just to let them know who they might possibly be choosing to do business with. If they like what they hear, they will usually respond with a call to action – a phone number and best time to call, ideally.”
When she does give prices, she doesn’t give too much detail – that way the prospective client can’t go and book it themselves. However, if after speaking with the person she begins to suspect they are heading in the direction of DIY, she strongly discourages them from booking without a travel agent, even if they don’t use her in the end.
“Most customers respect this,” she said.