The business climate for travel agencies has improved in two key measures – the consumer perception of agents is more positive today than in recent memory, and agent-supplier relations have become more equitable.
That was the good news consensus among four consortium executives who spoke on a panel about the future of the travel agency industry at last week’s New York Times Travel Show in New York.
But the travel agency community still has many challenges ahead, they agreed. Among these challenges – communicating agents’ value to consumers and attracting younger people to the profession and as customers.
Following are highlights of the panel discussion, which also addressed the pros and cons of ongoing consolidation, as well as the benefits to agents and agencies of partnering with a larger marketing group, be it a consortium, host or franchise.
How agents are seen
“Perceptions are all over the place. It runs the gamut, and it runs the gamut based on the individual travel agent that they’re working with. There’s a perception that a lot are order takers; there are others that are considered true professionals.” – Ellen Bettridge, vice president, Retail Travel Network, American Express
“The perception of the professional is rising. It’s better now than it was six or 10 years ago, because people have come to realize the web is completely overwhelming. Also because of a number of things that have happened, like the ash cloud in Iceland, people realize they can’t rely on an 800 number. But I can rely on a human being who knows me, who is going to help me.” – Ignacio Maza, executive vice president, Signature Travel Network
What’s in a name?
“We need to move beyond the term agent. We’re now travel professionals. We’re something beyond just an agent who takes an order.” – Libbie Rice, co-president, Ensemble Travel
Travel agent challenges
“The challenge for all of us is to reach the consumers and let them understand the value of a travel professional and what they do to enhance the travel experience.” – Ignacio Maza
“The perception is that the agent’s average age is much older than some of the consumers. So we need, as an industry, to go out and attract young people to the travel agency community. They know how to market to the younger generations. And we need to think through how we get the younger consumers to come back into the agency world.” – Libbie Rice
“Qualifying is something that we do not do a good enough job with.” – Ellen Bettridge
Supplier fair p(l)ay
“When we deliver profitable customers to suppliers that they can’t get themselves, they should pay. And they should pay a fair amount. People who invest their life in this business should not be going home every night worried sick that some supplier tomorrow is going to announce something nasty.” – Mike Batt, chairman, Travel Leaders Group
"I think it's actually a fairly balanced relationship in my mind. We have a lot more power and lot more influence with suppliers going forward right now. And I think our members would tell us if we didn't so it's a pretty good balance." – Libbie Rice
Naming the competition
“Our true competitor is the consumer who is doing everything themselves and does not believe that you [travel agents] exist.” – Ignacio Maza
“I don’t believe that agents compete with agents. The best thing for us is thousands and thousands of profitable, really professional travel agents.” – Mike Batt
Agents cost more?
“Another perception is that we cost more. We’ve got to continue evolving that discussion and getting people to realize that we’re actually the ones who are connected to the deals. The more that we try to deliver that to them, the more the perception of who we are will change.” – Ellen Bettridge
“I don’t care that customers think that we’re more expensive. I actually want them to think we’re more expensive. It’s like I wouldn’t want to be a cheap lawyer or a cheap doctor.” – Mike Batt
Consolidation is good
“Consolidation is a good thing, because it has happened to suppliers for years. You can’t have suppliers consolidate and then have a distribution base remain fragmented; what happens then is somebody takes advantage of the fact that you’ve got people with no ability to negotiate, so they’re going to take more. That’s why we want to get bigger and bigger. Just so that we can have that balanced relationship.” – Mike Batt
“There has been a flurry of consolidation over the last couple of years. I actually think it’s been good for our industry to bring groups together, because they become stronger and they’re leveraging strength from each other. . . . I think it is going to slow down a little bit. Business is back, and you don’t see the same level of consolidation when business is really strong.” – Ellen Bettridge
“We bring things that an agent can’t do on their own. So we have the ability to do the marketing or offer technology programs on behalf of our members – or provide them the tools so they can do it on their own. From a supplier standpoint, we have the relationships and the ability to really go to the top. So if you, as a smaller agency, don’t have the clout, we have the ability to drive it to the top.” – Libbie Rice
“(We’re) there to make sure relations with suppliers are equal. I look at groups like ours as a telephone book. You can rip a page in the telephone book, but it’s tough to rip the book.” – Mike Batt