Jackie Friedman knows a thing or two about the travel agency community. After more than 15 years as president at Nexion and in her third term on the ASTA Board of Directors, Friedman has deep insights into the industry. (Friedman is also a member of Travel Market Report’s Editorial Advisory Board.)
Travel Market Report sat down with Friedman during the host agency’s 2022 annual CoNexion conference at the Disneyland Resort last month to talk about a variety of topics. The conversation ranged from what’s bringing new advisors into the industry to the importance of service fees and why there’s actually no wrong or right opinion on the subject to how the overall opinion of hosted advisors has changed over the years.
On new entrants to the advisor community during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Throughout the pandemic, we didn’t really see a slowdown in people wanting to come into this industry. During the downtime, it was a great time for people who many have wanted to do something else, who had time on their hands. It gave them the opportunity to learn and get trained during the slow time so that they were ready when things picked up.”
On what attracts new entrants to becoming a travel advisor.
“They all have typically one of three things. They love to travel. In many cases, they always were the person that planned travel for their friends and family, but never got paid for it. They love people. They love to work with people and do consultative selling with people. And they’re intrigued by the opportunity to have their own business.”
On how few advisors left the industry because of the pandemic.
“I was shocked, to be honest, at how many advisors did not leave the industry. If you had talked to me three or four months into the pandemic, I would have thought we would have seen a lot more leave than we really did. Some of them pressed pause. They never left but they had to take other jobs to be able to put food on the table, but we didn’t see them leave.”
On why she’s not concerned about the DOT looping travel agencies into mandated airfare refunds.
“It’s who the merchant of record is. In most cases, the travel advisor is not the merchant of record. The only place where there might be a little bit of risk is if they’re putting together packages where they are the merchant of record… I’m very engaged with ASTA, in talking to Evan and Zane, they are a lot more optimistic… when the story first broke, there was a lot of concern but as we learned more about what it is, I don’t want to say it’s nothing, but I’m not terribly concerned."
On why service fees are important.
“The commissions that they earn are the suppliers paying them to sell their product. The fees that they should be charging are their customers paying them for their expertise. Because what they do today is so much more than just booking a trip. They do a lot of research. They make sure that their client knows about all the protocols. They stay on top of that booking. When they travel, they're monitoring flights to make sure that the flights aren't canceling.”
On who some travel advisors shouldn’t charge fees.
“First of all, you have to provide value. If you are just a transactional travel advisor and you’re taking a card, making the booking and moving on, then you probably can’t charge a fee because you’re not adding any value over and above what a supplier call center will add.”
On why some advisors are hesitant to charge fees (but newer advisors aren’t).
“Very often the barrier is inside. They’re assuming that their customer will say no… it’s that self-talk that sometimes gets in the way…. It’s interesting, some of the new folks coming in, they do it right out of the chute because they don’t have that voice.”
On the ripple effect of charging service fees.
“They’re becoming more selective in the customers they work with and, for some, it’s really liberating. We’re seeing more and more specializing.”
On “competing” with suppliers or large online travel agencies.
“When someone says, I'm competing with the Internet, I tell them you're never going to beat some of these OTAs on price. And you don't want to. You need to focus on what the Internet can't do and really do that well, versus trying to compete with them on what they can do.”
On the common consumer messaging, “It doesn’t cost any more to use a travel advisor than to book direct.”
“I hate that… The trip, itself, does not cost more when you book through a travel advisor. What you’re paying for, what does cost a little more is the expertise that the travel advisor brings to the table. So, if you separate those two things, it could cost less because you’re more likely to book the right product for you. Sometimes you pay at the end or you may think that something’s cheaper upfront but then you’re paying more on site.”
On whether there’s a wrong or right viewpoint concerning fees.
“If I'm a franchise organization and I'm trying to get volume, they may have a different opinion. It's not wrong and it's not right, it's just different.”
On one of her top goals.
“My goal is to never, ever hear someone say, “Travel agents, do they still exist?”
On judging suppliers for their support (or non-support) of travel advisors during the pandemic.
“You had intent and you had execution. One of the things I share with our advisors is, there were certain instances where a supplier had the right intent. They wanted to be there. They wanted to do the right thing. They wanted to help advisors and consumers through this. Their systems couldn’t catch up with their intent. For me, it was really important to get advisors focused on the intent of that partner in terms of what they wanted to do and not focused as much on, sometimes their systems made it a little rocky."
On why “sales” were so difficult during COVID-19 shutdown.
“The hardest selling is keeping that relationship. They might not have been selling travel, but they were selling them and their value by being there for their customers, by doing those cancellations, but managing customers based on what was right for them… you might lose the sale right now, but you’re keeping the customer because you’re doing what’s right for them. You’re not trying to push them into something that they’re not ready to do yet… What’s happening is those relationships solidified and the sales came afterwards. They lagged, but they definitely came.”
On the history of host agencies in the travel agency community.
“There was a time when the consortia weren’t interested in host agencies. They didn’t understand them. They didn’t necessarily respect them. These weren’t real travel advisors. Clearly, that’s changed.”
On the “triangle of success” for a host agency.
“I call it the triangle of success. We have supplier partners. We have advisors and we have our headquarters, our parent company. We are not successful unless our advisors are successful. And, if they’re selling our preferred partners, then that will help them be successful.”