This is part one in a series on agent-consortium engagement.
Agency consortia and marketing groups offer an impressive arsenal of business-boosting features – everything from preferred supplier benefits to marketing strategies and online tech tools – but getting agents to actually use them is not a slam-dunk.
What with the deluge of supplier promotions and other information that bombard agents daily, keeping members engaged is a challenge that requires constant new incentives, consortium executives say.
Travel Market Report spoke with a cross-section of consortium executives to hear their take on why consortium engagement is important for agents and what the consortia are doing to encourage engagement.
Engagement pays off
Convincing agents to become engaged can be an uphill battle, said John Werner, CTC, president of MAST Vacation Partners. “We know agents are busy at work and that they have things going on in their personal lives.
“We communicate what we offer in so many ways, but agents are so bombarded with information these days, they are on overload.”
For those agents who do make the time, the payoff is evident, Werner said. “It’s the people who are most engaged with the organization who have the higher sales. They tend to have more customers and profitability.”
Keeping ahead of change
Kathryn Mazza-Burney, executive vice president of sales, of TRAVELSAVERS, also said agents have much to benefit from consortium engagement – particularly in today’s fast-changing environment.
“Between the inevitable advances in technology, changing travel trends, and the impact of world events, the travel industry is always affected,” she noted.
“By working with a global marketing organization like TRAVELSAVERS, travel professionals have access to exceptional resources to keep on top of these changes quickly and always stay one step ahead.”
The BDM approach
For TRAVELSAVERS, agent engagement is encouraged by assigning a Business Development Manager (BDM) to every member agency, Mazza-Burney said.
“They are in regular contact with the agencies and are on hand to answer questions, ensure the agents are familiar with the available resources and to work with them to develop a customized marketing plan based on their individual needs,” she said.
The one-on-one BDM approach is complemented by a weekly e-newsletter, extranet, webinars and an online chat forum, she added.
Ensemble Travel Group also finds a one-on-one approach useful in getting members to make the most of their consortium relationship, according to Joe Jiffo, vice president of development.
The consortium’s seven sales directors are charged with training members on Ensemble’s tools, either through webinars or agency visits.
“We’re always reminding people of what we offer. We’ll go into an agency office and ask why they aren’t on the Ensemble agents’ site,” he said.
Surprisingly, it is sometimes the larger agencies that don’t take advantage of the Ensemble programs, he noted.
“One of our biggest members never used our marketing program, but during the education process we encouraged them to try it at least once,” he said. “He had a fantastic return on the investment.”
Rewarding top sellers
At MAST, recognizing sales efforts has long been a part of how the organization encourages member engagement, according to Werner.
“Our standard for this is our All-Star Awards program, which is based on percentage of growth and sales with preferred suppliers,” he said. “It recognizes growth as well as volume, so agencies of various sizes can win.”
Winners are recognized at the annual MAST conference during an elegant awards dinner.
This year, MAST also launched a program that rewards agents for their participation in the consortium’s education, marketing, meetings, events and networking activities. As participants build reward credits, they save on their annual membership fees. Rewards double when members reach preferred supplier sales targets.
In most cases, preferred supplier programs form the nucleus of the agent-consortium relationship.
Along with getting better rates for clients, preferred supplier programs provide clients with extra perks and amenities, from shipboard credits to free hotel breakfasts. Those extras will go a long way towards fostering client satisfaction, consortium executives emphasized.
“The strong preferred supplier relationships we’ve developed over the years give us the ability to offer our travel professionals access to exclusive perks, benefits and savings,” said Burney-Mazza.
“In turn, agencies can pass these special offers on to their clients, keeping them one step ahead of the competition and increasing the chances of repeat business.”
A new preferred supplier benefit at TRAVELSAVERS this year is Travel Club, a customer loyalty program. Agents can enroll clients in the complimentary club and encourage them to browse featured offers from preferred suppliers via a special URL. Clients also gain access to a Travel Club website and receive an e-newsletter.
At Signature Travel Network, using preferred suppliers has other tangible benefits, said executive vice president Alex Sharpe.
“As a member-owned cooperative, members benefit directly from supporting our preferred suppliers in the form of year-end dividends and performance incentive overrides,” he said.
“In a world with tighter margins, these opportunities are very important to members’ overall profitability.”
No guarantee of full compliance
Despite the obvious benefits of using preferred suppliers, getting full compliance from members is far from guaranteed, said Jiffo of Ensemble.
“Many of our Ensemble members will only use preferred suppliers, but there are those who don’t for a couple of main reasons – some have their own deals worked out, and they may have a longstanding relationship with a sales rep that they don’t want to change,” he said.
New challenges for agency groups
The changing nature of the travel agency model, particularly the trend for new agents to come into the industry on a part-time basis, is creating new challenges for consortium engagement, said Jackie Friedman, president of Nexion.
“Our training and outreach has to be more flexible and accessible than ever before,” she said.
Still, agents need to shoulder the responsibility of learning about what is available to them from their consortium partner, Friedman said.
“Take the time to get oriented, to see what’s there – and then you can decide what to take advantage of,” she said. “The frustrating thing is when people don’t take advantage of something because they don’t know it’s there.”
Next time: Consortiums are enhancing education and training to better engage members.