This is the second in a Travel Market Report series about the resurgence of the traditional travel agent.
When researchers noted a small but significant increase in consumer use of travel agencies not long ago, it sent a clear signal to travel agents: A shift in the zeitgeist is creating an opening that spells opportunity.
Consumers (well, some of them) are wearying of do-it-yourself travel. They are feeling starved for time and tired of the endless hours online involved in planning and booking a vacation. (See “Consumer Interest in Agents Rekindles, Sparks Opportunities,” Travel Market Report, Feb. 17, 2011.)
“All of that is good news for the travel agency community,” said Peter Yesawich, CEO of YPartnerhsip. “Increasingly more consumers will be looking for assistance provided by traditional agents.”
The question is, how can travel agents capitalize on this shift?
For the answer, address the issues and concerns that are driving consumers into agents’ arms, Yesawich advised. He sees two fundamental causes at work: our growing desire to save time; and the complexity of travel planning in light of an overwhelming array of choices.
Here are more tips, from Yesawich and others, on how to cash in on the growing consumer interest in working with traditional travel agents.
Tip #1: Sell the convenience factor
In our over-extended, multitasked, distracted lives, time is the ultimate currency. “If you can show how you can help people save time, and reduce their stress, that’s relevant to a lot of travelers,” said Henry Harteveldt, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research.
The more you speed up the travel planning and booking process for a time-impoverished client, the more valuable you become, Yesawich said. “One thing agents can sell very effectively is convenience.”
Tip #2: Focus on trips that matter most
“The incidence [of travel agency usage] rises with what I call the risk of the trip,” Yesawich said. “If you’re taking your 25th anniversary cruise, you don’t want to get on the wrong ship.”
Risk is often tied to cost, he added. “As the cost of the trip goes up, the higher the incidence of people using a travel agent.”
Tip #3: (Really) know your stuff
The need for agents to cultivate expertise in specific products and/or destinations is more pressing than ever, said Douglas Quinby, senior director of research for PhoCusWright. “Travel agents have to specialize. They have to.
“There’s not a lot of money competing with Expedia selling air tickets, unless you carve out a niche doing something as a consolidator. If you’re a small leisure agency, you’ve got to specialize and bring something to the table beyond the lowest price.”
Yesawich said agents must become specialists who are “truly more knowledgeable than the customer” – then capitalize on that product knowledge. “It’s that level of expertise that people are going to be willing to pay a premium for.”
Tip #4: Create a website that works
Make sure your website merchandizes your capabilities effectively, Harteveldt said. Among his specific tips:
- Use keywords that reflect your expertise and appeal to your target audience. “If you are an expert in family travel or a certain demographic audience or destination, you want to make sure you’re attracting the right customer to your business.”
- Create strong content. “You have to tell the customer, ‘Here’s how I can help you.’ Let people know what your focus is, and help them understand how you’ve helped others.”
Tip #5: Reach out through multiple channels
Agencies that embrace new technologies and use them to engage the customer will grow their business, said Lindsay Pearlman, co-president of Ensemble Travel Group.
“It’s a matter of how do you engage the customer on the platform the customer wants, in the manner the customer wants to be engaged,” Pearlman said.
Today’s consumers are using mobile devices, social media, online booking tools, email, texting and instant messaging to communicate, research and collect feedback on their vacation decisions. “It’s about communication at the end of the day. How does the consumer want to be communicated with?” Pearlman said.
Agents need to be in the right place at the right time, Harteveldt suggested, so you can “say yes to the customer at the time the customer has a need.”
“Get testimonials. Get a fan page going. Participate in Twitter,” Harteveldt advised. “I look at smart travel agents who do this, and they are attracting customers who represent the next generation of traveler.”
Tip #6: Collaborate with customers
By the time a consumer contacts your agency, odds are extremely high that she has already done extensive research. That changes the nature of the agent-client relationship, and agents have to respond appropriately. They want “validation and expertise,” Pearlman said.
Today’s customers also want travel agents to work in partnership with them, suggested Virtuoso president Kristi Jones.
“If you look at social media, people are looking to collaborate. They want advice as they craft this experience. That’s a shift.”