Attorney Turned Agent: 'Professionals Charge for Their Time'by Dori Saltzman /
Alice Durkee, CTA
Leisure Travel Advisor
Brownell Travel, Birmingham, Ala.
Business Profile: Office in office building; 20-40 full-time and independent contractors; 99% leisure; member of Virtuoso.
When did you first start charging fees and why?
Durkee: I started in the business six years ago and have charged fees since the very beginning. It is part of Brownell’s philosophy that we are professional service providers. I was an attorney before I started doing this and I charged for my time when I was a lawyer. Accountants and psychiatrists charge for their time. Professionals simply do charge for their time. It is part and parcel of providing expert service.
For what services do you charge fees?
Durkee: We charge ticketing fees for airline tickets. It’s a floating scale ranging from $50 to $300 a ticket depending on the complexity of the trip, whether it’s domestic or international, whether it includes frequent flyer points, and so on.
For other bookings, I tend to charge one planning fee, as opposed to charging per component. It’s a sliding scale, based upon the complexity and length of the trip. If it’s a package trip, the fee is less. If it is an FIT, my fee begins at $250 for a week of travel, simply because when I do an FIT it requires a whole lot of time, and it is then that my contacts with the hotels, on-sites, guides and restaurants come into play.
What percentage of revenue comes from fees now?
Durkee: Between airline ticketing fees and reservations management fees (the planning fee), if you break my income down by vendor, reservation management fees are my number one source of revenue, and my ticketing fees are number two just in pure volume.
Do you ever waive your fees?
Durkee: Yes, I have waived fees before. It happens rarely and it’s upfront. If a client does not value my services enough to pay me a fee then we’re probably not going to work very well together. Either they understand that what they’re getting is a truly professional service and they are happy to pay for that expertise, or maybe I’m just not the right advisor for them. I have waived fees on the back end when something has not gone very smoothly, and it has been my responsibility.
Do you ever encounter objections to fees from new or existing clients?
Durkee: Sometimes, but it tends to be more an issue of education. Time is money, and when people suggest that they can get on the Internet and do it themselves, I like to point out that yes, that’s a possibility, but there’s a real value to the time it’s going to take them to wade through everything. And if they are a one-off client, there is not as much weight behind their booking as there is when it comes from someone who has a personal relationship with that property, with that general manager, with that guide.
People don’t know what they don’t know, and if you can educate them to the benefits then they understand and don’t mind paying the fee. Then it really is your job to make sure you wow them so they truly understand the fee. If someone still doesn’t understand the value, maybe we aren’t the best match.
What is the most difficult thing for you in charging fees?
Durkee: Being able to discuss fees with the client and explain the reasoning behind them is a learned behavior. Understanding our value as professionals and communicating our worth as professionals takes a little bit of practice and a self-awareness that this is something that a client can not recreate on their own.
When did you last raise your fees?
Durkee: My fees have gone up as I have grown in experience, expertise and full awareness of my worth to the client. What I felt comfortable charging when I first started was not as much as I charge now. Airline fees have gone up a bit, simply because the airlines are not always the easiest entities to deal with.
How has assessing service fees impacted your business?
Durkee: It is absolutely crucial to the bottom line. By valuing what we do for our clients enough to feel justified in charging a fee, it boosts the sense of professionalism, both inwardly for the advisor and for the client. The client understands they are buying a service, that we are not order takers, that we are partners in providing the ultimate travel experience. And having a client who values you makes everybody’s life nicer.
Does an agent's geographic location or market niche determine whether s/he will be able to assess fees?
Durkee: When I was a defense lawyer I billed by the hour. When I worked for insurance companies, they’re all about volume and the bottom line, so my fees were low. When I had a complex litigation case, it was much more specialized so my hourly rate was higher. If a person does nothing but sell less-expensive cruises, then there might be pushback on fees or the fees would be less; I still think they can do it. I still think that you should.
What advice do you have for agents about introducing fees?
Durkee: Sit down and come up with a value statement for yourself. What is it that you add to an FIT? What is that you add to a cruise? What is it that you add when you do the airline tickets? Think about what you’re worth is. Go through it; really believe it. Then practice, role play.