This is the third in a series on home-based agents and supplier relationships.
Not only do agents who are home-based and/or independent contractors want more visibility with suppliers, many are seeking to expand beyond cruises and forge deeper connections with land-based suppliers.
This is the conclusion of Ann van Leeuwen, vice president of the National Association of Career Travel Agents (NACTA). As a result, the organization, like other agent groups, is addressing changing priorities among its membership, particularly when it comes to supplier education and partnerships, she said.
Travel Market Report spoke with van Leeuwen about the evolving home-based/independent agent landscape and how NACTA is addressing the changing needs of this sector. We also spoke with other groups that serve home-based agents to find out about their initiatives. (See sidebar.)
What are the challenges faced by home-based and independent agents in forging supplier relationships?
Van Leeuwen: The challenge in working with suppliers is the old structure – the BDM (business development manager) structure. Right in the BDM’s backyard there may be an independent agent with a strong group business, but that BDM may not be spending time with them. The focus is still on the on brick and mortar agency.
So some of my conversations with suppliers are about what our agents bring to the table. I explain that they can reach them through NACTA – and get appropriate sales credit.
Are suppliers getting the message?
Van Leeuwen: The independent channel is a growing one, and suppliers are keeping their eye on it. In my conversation with suppliers, I emphasize that the independent channel is one they can’t afford to not do business with.
How do you advise agents to improve supplier relations?
Van Leeuwen: We encourage agents to set sales goals and develop a marketing plan that they can show suppliers. I used to work for Holland America, so I know that suppliers are looking for ROI (return on investment).
One thing we are doing is helping those agents who want to specialize by guiding them into those areas where they can develop a specialty. A strong relationship with a supplier BDM can really help with this.
How is NACTA helping members in terms of supplier relationships?
Van Leeuwen: We’ve taken a good look at our supplier portfolio. We are very cruise-centric – and this continues to be strong. But we have a lot of members who don’t sell cruises and focus more on land-based suppliers. So I’ve been talking with more land-based suppliers.
Our goal is to offer more breadth of product for training and education. We are aligning supplier education through agent communications, webinars and training, familiarization trips – so the agents are fully knowledgeable about the product and destination.
Why is interest in land-based travel growing?
Van Leeuwen: Experiential travel is big. People are looking at enriching experiences. Not to say you can’t have that with a cruise – but land-based travel really ties in with this trend.
Does this land-based approach also enable agents who specialize in cruises to expand on what they are currently selling?
Van Leeuwen: It very much complements the pre- and post- aspects of cruises. For example, if they are selling a European cruise, they can learn how to package that trip more effectively by building in a land portion.
What opportunities does NACTA see in the independent/home-based sector?
Van Leeuwen: Because people can work anywhere now, a lot of veteran agents have gone the independent route. They have already built a book of business and client connections. Where our opportunity lies is in attracting new people to the industry and serving their needs. Many of them will be trained by a host agency – and we want to be able to complement that. We want to help the new agent be successful.
Are independent agents networking among themselves?
Van Leeuwen: Referrals between independents happen all the time – they are very networked and accessible to one another. It’s an exchange of information and knowledge.
The willingness to help each other is so cool. It’s not a competitive environment. People are open and sharing and helping others to be successful.
Does NACTA facilitate agent networking?
Van Leeuwen: Through our NACTA Agent Digest, they can pose a question and 1,800 agents could respond. ‘This is why I recommend this supplier.’ ‘Here’s where I would send your client in the Caribbean.’
Part One: “Home-Based Agents Still Face Roadblocks in Supplier Relations,” June 4, 2012.
Part Two: “For Strong Supplier Relations, Show Them Your Plan,” June 7, 2012