Part 3 in a series on CRM systems.
For years travel professionals who were in the market for a customer relationship management (CRM) system designed for agents had two main choices –– Sabre’s Clientbase, the dominant player, and ClientEase by ITAMS Ltd. –– along with a handful of proprietary systems developed by individual hosts or agency groups.
In early 2014, a new player called VacationCRM entered the market, to the consternation of some industry members.
VacationCRM is the brainchild of travel agency owner and manager Mitch Toren of Trip Guy Travel in Holland, PA, and Robert Whorrall, vice president of marketing and sales for Beach Bum Vacation, an agency in Indianapolis.
The pair, whose agencies are competitors, got together after discovering that neither was happy with the CRMs currently available to leisure travel agents. “We felt that none of the existing applications on the market were fine-tuned for our business and our business process,” Toren said.
Toren had been using a well-known industry-wide CRMs (he declined to specify), but had found it to be so “cumbersome” and “complex” that it actually hindered his agency’s growth. “We were spending hours of training across multiple days,” he said.
Whorrall agreed and they decided to invest together in a solution for their agencies. “We had no commercial aspirations for this product,” Toren said.
First they hired a developer to create a web-based CRM designed specifically for leisure agencies, and gave him four guidelines: It had to be simple, so that anybody could pick it up with minimal training. It had to save agents time. It had to be accessible from any browser. And it had to be flexible, so agents could tailor it as their businesses evolved.
Within half a year of introducing the system to their own agents in February 2014, VacationCRM was accepting commercial customers.
Toren said that though they did little marketing, word spread, and today more than 250 agencies use the product — many of them first-time CRM users.
The product itself continues to evolve, adding functionality and more supplier partners, including most recently Apple Vacations and Carnival Corp.
Not all agents are wild about the idea of VacationCRM. Some said they would be uncomfortable housing their data on a CRM owned by a competing travel agent.
“I find it to be a conflict of interest,” said one agency executive. Said another: “I wouldn’t put my business in the hands of another agent.” (Both agents asked not to be quoted by name.)
Toren said the data-privacy issue is one of the first things he brings up in demonstrations to agents. He tells them that VacationCRM uses a third-party developer and data administrator, and that a firewall ensures that he and Whorrall have no access to the data.
The data administrator––a company from outside the travel industry called Valex––“completely runs the day-to-day support and is the only one in the organization that’s allowed to see data or answer questions from any individual agency,” Toren said.
One executive who has previewed VacationCRM is Karen Yeates, executive vice president of information technologies for Signature Travel Network.
“It’s really impressive. I love the ease of use for the agency side,” she said. But “the difficulty is that it doesn’t address a huge segment –– corporate. It doesn’t have the older school legacy connection [to the GDS].” (VacationCRM is looking to add GDS connectivity in 2016, according to Toren.)
As for the issue of data privacy, Yeates said she was not concerned, adding, “I think those guys are on the up and up.”
Without naming VacationCRM specifically, Scott Koepf, CTC, senior vice president of sales of Avoya Travel/American Express, suggested that agents think carefully before aligning their business with a new entrant in the CRM arena.
“I would caution any agent looking at a CRM to make sure it is supported and owned by a company that has longevity and is going to be around, to make sure they’re going to be there to answer questions.”
Jim Mazza, chief operating officer of TRAVELSAVERS, said if he were choosing a CRM he would want to work with a company whose core strength is technology. “I never want to be on the bleeding edge of technology. I need to know that this is a tried-and-true technology company that won’t crash.”
Yeates advice? “I think it’s a matter of finding the CRM that works for what best matches your business process. That’s why there is a need for multiple CRMs in the marketplace.”