No matter what becomes of Tripadvisor’s proposed plan to charge consumers on its platform a $200 planning fee in return for referring a traveler to a qualified travel advisor, industry officials believe the concept validates today’s professional travel agent.
“To have Tripadvisor acknowledging that the human touch is worth paying for says something very positive about the role that a professional travel advisor plays in selling travel,” said Stephen McGillivray, CTC, chief marketing & communications officer at Travel Leaders Group.
“We are in the golden age of travel advisors. They are here to stay for those complex, immersive travel experiences, for any demographic, to curate the trip that gives someone bragging rights when they return home.”
“We see TripAdvisor’s move as validation more than anything – that the market is shifting and DIY travel planning is so 2010,” the American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA) said in a statement emailed to Travel Market Report. “People want to work with a human being when booking travel.”
In its emailed statement, the association said it believes recent media coverage has contributed to a shifting consumer mindset, from “Why should I use a travel advisor?” to “How do I find the right one?” ASTA has been aggressively promoting advisors to consumers and the media the last three years, generating significant mainstream media coverage about the value of working with a travel advisor.
Tripadvisor, which reported 463 million average monthly unique visitors in the third quarter of 2019 (the peak summer travel season), declined to comment when contacted about the proposed program. Advisors familiar with the proposal told Travel Market Report that $50 of the $200 planning fee would be remitted to the participating advisor.
Some observers wondered if Tripadvisor is developing the travel agent referral program to assist them in selling more tours. Tripadvisor bought Viator, a tour operator sales platform, for $200 million in 2014; and added Bokun, a similar Iceland-based site, in April 2018.
“One of the things that the internet is still not good at is complex trip planning,” said Douglas Quinby, co-founder & CEO at Boulder, Colorado-based Arival, a company that specializes in research and events in the tours and activities market.
“Over the last decade, there has been significant growth in demand for adventurous, off-the-beaten-path tours. Well, it’s not as easy for consumers to match themselves with the right multiday tours and receptive operators as it is, say, the airline to get them to their destination.”
“Today, the traveler depends on someone else in market, like the concierge at their hotel or resort, to direct them to the local experience,” McGillivray said. “Referring their clients to travel advisors could widen the net to make Viator and its product available at the front end of the trip planning process.”
According to Tripadvisor’s most recent financial report, “experiences & dining” sales reached $456 million for the calendar year ending Dec. 31, 2019, up 23% from the same period in 2018.
Sales leads are critical to advisors’ success
No matter what Tripadvisor’s motivation, leaders across the travel agency industry welcomed a major online travel brand communicating to consumers that they should consider planning their next vacation through a travel advisor.
“It's not surprising at all that a travel review site would consider offering sales leads,” said Margie Jordan, owner of Jacksonville travel agency Jordan Executive Travel Service, and vice president of TRUE Network (part of the CCRA travel advisor network).
“They're a hub for travel information for those looking for their next vacation. What's great about leads from this source is you know the traveler is planning a trip, they likely know where they want to go, and potentially have a list of hotels/resorts they are interested in.”
“Driving leads to travel advisors, generating new customers, is the number one or number two need on every travel advisor’s wish list,” said McGillivray at Travel Leaders, which deploys its Agent Profiler tool at a number of consumer-facing platforms, including Travelleaders.com and Vacation.com, to generate sales prospects for its member agencies.
“Agent Profiler is an apparatus for advisors to tell their story, what they’re good at, the awards they’ve received, the specialties they serve, all of which helps a consumer during the consideration phase, determine if that advisor is a good match for them.”
More than 8,000 advisors have active profiles in the platform, and Travel Leaders says it has experienced an annual sales lead growth rate of about 30% the last few years. In 2019, Travel Leaders generated approximately 174,000 leads through the tool.
When a consumer arrives at the Travelleaders.com site, they are already further down the purchasing funnel, said Brian Hegarty, Travel Leaders’ marketing vice president. “They very likely have done a lot of research, and maybe even are feeling a little overwhelmed by their options. They’re looking for a solution to their vacation planning decisions in a travel advisor.”
However, at Vacation.com, a Travel Leaders site that offers content about a wide range of vacation styles and destinations, Agent Profiler is working with consumers who are “higher up in the funnel,” Hegarty said.
“They’re in the aspirational and inspirational phase and may not be ready to work with an advisor. But if we can nurture that prospect, even before they’ve realized the travel agent was the solution, we’re hoping to increase the likelihood they will want to be referred to an advisor later on.”
ASTA provides travel leads to members through its consumer-facing website, TravelSense.org, which it remodeled last year to include new features, including expert travel content and a chat feature for travelers to connect real-time with an advisor. TravelSense.org does not charge consumers a fee to be referred to an ASTA member, but ASTA is rumored to be in early discussions with Tripadvisor about its sales leads referral program.
Also, every advisor listed on TravelSense.org pledges to abide by ASTA’s 12-part code of ethics, enforced through a “rigorous” consumer complaints process, said ASTA. In the last 12 months, TravelSense.org has delivered approximately $2 million in sales leads to its members, the association said.
Helen Prochilo, owner/manager with Promal Vacations, booked “almost $80,000” in business through TravelSense leads last year, she said. “If you have a good profile on TravelSense, the consumers come to you. You don't have to chase leads.”
Seeking more details
Given that Tripadvisor has been so tight-lipped about their concept, tenured advisors like Jordan have lots of questions for the online travel review site.
“First and foremost, I'd want to know a lot more about where the leads are sourced from and how travel advisors are being matched to the leads,” she said. “I'd also want clarity on how travel advisors are being vetted and introduced into the program. Would there be any follow-up with the new lead from Tripadvisor?
“And of course, there’s the referral fee structure. Would there be any opportunity for experienced advisors to keep more of the initial fee? When is the fee paid by the client and then to the advisor? What would disqualify an advisor from the program – like a lack of closed sales?”
Additionally, Jordan noted that having Tripadvisor referring qualified sales leads and willing to pay a $200 fee could be a big boon to travel advisors who are on the fence about charging fees themselves. “For the majority of travel advisors who don't charge a fee, and maybe have been a bit fearful of charging a fee, this could be a great way to source leads and earn a little bit of money upfront,” Jordan said.
“If the client comes back for a second trip, the agent should feel completely comfortable charging the $200 fee again as they know the client has paid it in the past, understands the value of it, and likely even expects it.”
The leads also could be helpful for advisors who have slow periods, Jordan said. “This could potentially help fill some of those sales gaps.”