In 2016, 44% of travel agents were home-based.
Even as travel professionals have grown their market share against the online travel agencies (OTAs) over the past five years, agents and marketing experts still agree that staying at the forefront of the consumer’s mind has never been more critical.
It doesn’t help that brick-and-mortar agencies are no longer as prevalent as they once were. A recent ASTA/NACTA survey found that 44% of travel agents were home-based in 2016, up from 37% in 2012, and the percent of travel agents working in a retail location dropped from 40% to 35%.
This workplace shift from Main Street to home office has contributed to the lingering public question: “Travel agents? Do they still exist?” ASTA president Zane Kerby this spring noted that “because agents aren’t visible on the street corner every day, Millennials don’t have an understanding of what travel agents do. It’s our job to keep them in the public consciousness.”
And he is serious about doing the job right. ASTA has invested heavily in consumer awareness campaigns this year, and used the results of its annual consumer survey to garner millions of impressions in articles in large daily newspapers across the country. And at its annual conference this year, ASTA launched a new online news program, "Travel Agents Taking Off".
Travel agents need all the help they can get. In its “Travel Agent of the Future” report, the online travel publication Skift noted that “travel agents must still be able to prove their inherent value to consumers if they want to stay ahead of the game.” And that’s not easy, Skift noted, in part due to the enormous resources OTAs have—like the $400 million they spent in U.S. TV advertising in 2015.
Dedicate the time if you’re dedicated to your business
In the end, though, it’s up to individual agents to promote themselves.
“So many people are selling so much of the same thing, and it's easy to be overlooked in a saturated market,” said Jacob Marek, owner of IntroverTravels and 45 Degrees, his own travel marketing agency in South Florida. Marek has 10 years of marketing experience, mostly in the travel industry working for tourism boards and tour operators, developing and executing marketing plans.
“You need to set yourself apart, tell your story, and provide a value that the consumer couldn't get from an OTA,” Marek said. “Regardless of the product you sell, you need a point of differentiation to stand out from the crowd.”
The first step is to acknowledge that “you can't be all things to all people. I see many travel professionals fail to create a compelling niche specialization and a unique ideal client avatar. By developing those two specific marketing pieces, so many other questions are answered before the travel agent even asks the questions,” Marek said.
Many travel agencies use the same templated websites, with the same templated marketing copy, and even the same templated social media posts, he said. “These are huge red flags for me. Invest the time, energy, and—yes, even some money—in making your unique brand stand out. Being different is a good thing.”
And don’t overlook the old standard, e-mail, he said. “Be focused on building that list.”
A blog is one way to draw in both existing and new customers to an e-mail marketing database, Marek said. “Blogging also is a phenomenal way to rank higher in Google, position yourself as an expert, and offer content upgrades (aka ‘lead magnets’) to grow your database.”
In order to encourage agents to increase their marketing investment Marek and Leila Coe, CTA, Go Your Own Way Travel, last year launched Travel Agent Awareness Week. About 500 travel agents participated in October 2015, and currently more than 2,000 agents are members of a Travel Agent Awareness Facebook group.
“We were frustrated with agents complaining with how the public doesn’t understand that agents still exist,” said Coe, whose agency is based out of Orlando.
This year, Coe and Marek moved Travel Agent Awareness Week to Dec. 5-9 due to the Presidential election. The program this year will include a series of seminars on how to promote your travel agency through various channels, including social media and online blogs.
Coe, an independent contractor for an agency, acknowledged how difficult it is to wear so many hats as an entrepreneur. “I’m still learning. I have a Facebook page, Instagram, but there are only so many things you can do in a day.”
Similarly, The Travel Institute every July offers its “Promote your Professionalism” month-long series of seminars focused on certification, public relations and marketing.
Industry suppliers offer promotional assistance too
Agents also need to avail themselves of industry resources. For example, Amadeus all this year has been offering a promotion where agents can submit a photograph or video that describes their passion for their work and for travel.
“Successful businesses are driven by passionate leaders and passionate employees,” said Vivian Hartjes, head of global go-to-market offer, Amadeus IT Group. “This applies to all industries, but we think it’s especially relevant to travel agencies and their consultants, because what really sets them apart from their competitors is their passion and ability to offer the right travel experiences to their customers.”
The three best videos will have their story professionally filmed and shared by Amadeus. The deadline for submissions is Dec. 31.