Building good relationships with tour operators, cruise lines, hoteliers and other suppliers takes time and effort. But establishing strong rapports with supplier sales reps can yield big rewards.
Suppliers can keep you up to date on new products and agent incentives and sometimes provide upgrades and other amenities for your clients.
Here are tips from agents who have profited by building supplier relationships carefully and skillfully.
1. Work with your consortium’s preferred suppliers
That might sound like a no-brainer, but sometimes agents overlook the very vendors that their consortia have painstakingly chosen.
Steve Arthur, owner of Travel Lovers in Lynchburg, Va., a member of TRAVELSAVERS, finds it especially helpful to call on preferred suppliers when a trip request is, “out of the realm of something we’re used to dealing with.”
“We’ll call the vendor and say we’re affiliated with TRAVELSAVERS. We’ll say, ‘We have a client who wants to hike Antarctica. Do you have a local rep who can come in and talk to us?’” said Arthur.
2. Use luxury suppliers
Suppliers that deal with a luxury clientele pride themselves on giving clients special treatment. And they often show agents similar consideration.
“If you’re working with a luxury supplier, you’ll usually get first class treatment,” said Gary M. Pollard, CTC, president & CEO of Ambassador Tours, an Ensemble agency in San Francisco.
“Some sales reps, like those from Regent Seven Seas, are like God’s gifts. It’s amazing what they can do. They seem empowered.”
3. Attend conventions and trade shows
Both new and established agents should meet and keep in touch with supplier reps at regular travel trade events.
“Our consortium does conventions about quarterly, and once a year they do a big trade show. That’s a good opportunity to meet suppliers,” said Karen Schinke, CTC, of Chocolate City Travel, a Burlington, Wisc., agency that belongs to MAST Travel Network.
4. Make yourself available
While Arthur of Travel Lovers complained about supplier reps who pop into his office unannounced, he also said that when it’s a rep from a supplier like Viking, Travel Impressions or Collette, “we make time for them.”
Doing so is often worthwhile. For instance, he said, a Collette rep spent a couple of hours in his agency’s office helping to refine its database.
5. Encourage informal meetings
“We’re big believers in face-to-face interaction,” said Arthur. “‘Next time you come,’ we’ll say, ‘Why don’t you come later, and we’ll have dinner and drinks?’ They can see the value in that.”
6. Be a strong, loyal producer
If a supplier’s sales rep has explained his or her product in depth, been available to discuss your agency’s needs and shown a willingness to meet special requests, show your commitment with big sales.
“You have to be a producing agent,” said Pollard of Ambassador Tours. “I will browbeat suppliers to get what I need. But I produce.”
Arthur said that when he calls his Viking rep, “it’s surprising if I don’t get a call from her before the end of the day.” There’s a reason for Viking’s responsiveness, he said: “Among agencies on the East Coast, we’re in the top 3% of Viking sales.”
Once you have established strong relationships with sales reps, show loyalty. Spreading business among many suppliers who offer similar products is counterproductive.
7. Don’t ask for too many favors
Sometimes a sales rep can get a room or cabin upgrade or another favor by appealing to, or circumventing, upper management.
If you have such a rep, don’t abuse the privilege. No one likes feeling used.
“You’ve got to be careful not to ask reps for special favors all the time,” said Schinke of Chocolate City Travel. “Then when you really need a favor, it might not be available.”
8. Know what you can – and can’t – get
When it comes to getting special favors like room upgrades, “in many cases, sales reps hands are tied,” said Pollard. “Twenty years ago, the sales rep was the only conduit between the supplier and the agent. Today reps are more like brochure pushers.”
9. Go up the chain of command
If a sales rep is unable or unwilling to grant a favor, consider going through another channel.
“Balloons or strawberries in a cabin – most reps can arrange that,” Pollard said. “But for an upgrade on a ship, I go to the dispatcher who handles cabins.
“If it’s a pricing issue, I would go to the yield management department’s personnel. If you know enough about the business, you can negotiate with the yield management people and provide solutions that make for a win-win situation,” he said.
10. Express your dissatisfaction – and your gratitude
If a supplier has not been helpful, let them know. “There’s no advantage in letting things fester when you could get the issue resolved,’ said Arthur.
Pollard made a similar point. “If you ask for an upgrade and a dispatcher says, ‘I can’t do that,’ write them to let them know you need their help and remind them that you do $10 million a year in sales.”
By the same token, when a sales rep has been helpful, say thank you with a small gift. “We might send a gift certificate or box of candy,” said Pollard.