Agent Uses Fees to Promote Expertise, Dispense With 'Brain Pickers'by Dori Saltzman /
Ann Lombardi, Co-Owner
The Trip Chicks, Passport to Adventure, Inc.
Business Profile: Home-based; two full-time agents; 25+ years experience; annual revenue of $1 million; NEST agency
When did you first start charging fees and why?
Lombardi: We started charging fees about five years ago when we realized it was necessary for survival. So many people were taking our time picking our brains, and time is money. And so is expertise. We’ve worked many hard years and been to 85 countries and to acquire this expertise takes time and energy.
For what services do you charge fees?
Lombardi: First, we don’t apply the fee to the booking. What we charge the most for is our area of expertise, which is FITs, especially to Europe. We charge an upfront fee based on what we anticipate will be the time spent on consultation and research.
What percentage of your revenue comes from fees now?
Lombardi: 10%. I’d maybe like to double that amount.
Do you ever waive your fees?
Lombardi: For a long-term senior citizen client who is not Internet savvy, we don’t charge to help them with a plane ticket. But we don’t waive the fee for an older person who calls us repeatedly and takes a huge amount of time to answer basic questions. So it’s more of a discretionary fee; it’s not the same across the board.
We don’t charge a fee for booking a standard departure on a regularly scheduled tour, unless they’re ultra labor-intensive.
Do you ever encounter objections to fees from new or existing clients?
Lombardi: Now that I co-own my own business I can afford to be selective. If we sense that a person is going to be a thorn in our sides, they are worth no amount of money. I would rather turn away business and lose any earnings than have any additional stress in my already hectic life.
We qualify them in advance with a free 30-minute consultation – which is a feeling-out session to see if we want to work with them – and then based on the project we quote an upfront fee that they’ll need to pay before we can continue.
If they say it sounds expensive I’ll use the dentist or lawyer analogy. If it’s a person that’s already balking at the whole idea of fees, we know they’re going to try and milk us for all we’re worth. I don’t want that; I paid my dues years ago. We may have lost money but we sure as heck have saved ourselves lots of headaches.
What is the most difficult thing for you in charging fees?
Lombardi: It was hard getting used to asking people to pay for our expertise. We were always underselling ourselves. It’s a travel agent trait. The first time we asked for it I was literally shaking in my boots thinking, ‘I’m going to get a major slap in the face.’ We had one woman who said, ‘That’s not worth it.’ I said, ‘I understand, that’s fine and I wish you well.’
I am not an order-taker. I say this to myself every day: ‘I am a skilled, very experienced, knowledgeable, international leisure travel agent and by golly you’re going to pay me for my services.’
How has assessing service fees impacted your business?
Lombardi: It’s been a life-saver in qualifying clients, which is a huge time-saver. And of course it affects our bottom line. We’re a two-woman agency and we’re competing with mega-agencies. So we’ve got to manage our time, and fees separate the wheat from the chaff. It has definitely made the work more profitable.
Does an agent’s geographic location or market niche determine whether s/he will be able to assess fees?
Lombardi: Absolutely. If we were in Montgomery, Ala., in a lower to mid-income area, we’d have to adjust our fees accordingly. But we would still charge fees. Paying a fee for the expertise of an experienced person will save you huge amounts of time and money. If you don’t want to invest even let’s say $50 in a short consultation that could potentially make or break your trip to Europe, then what the heck are you doing traveling? If I were in Birmingham, Ala., or Bucharest, Romania, I would charge fees.
What advice do you have for agents about introducing fees?
Lombardi: First, ask yourself what is your area of expertise? It’s hard as a generalist to charge fees other than on tickets. Also, what is your competition doing? Call up a couple of travel agencies in your area of expertise and say ‘I’d like to go to Europe, what would you charge’ and see what they say. Then see what you feel comfortable doing.
There’s no standard fee. The travel agent with 25 years in the industry that leads constant tours, has lived in Europe and speaks four languages is going to charge more than a travel agent that’s been in the industry two years. You can always raise them later once you get more high-profile.
Also, I try my best to be as attentive, and give the promptest service possible. Because if you don’t do that, they might come back and say, ‘That fee I paid you, you did great research, but you didn’t give me the attention I deserve.’