Location, location, location

By Arnie Weissmann

Arnie WeissmannRandell Johnson is a retired college professor and administrator. For his fourth career (prior to academia, he had also put in time as a radio announcer and advertising executive), he has decided to be a travel agent. And while he is very content selling travel, he is decidedly unhappy with the branding he sees imposed upon him by the travel industry.

Johnson doesn't like the term "home agent" to describe who he is, and he wrote to me last week to explain why. Noting that he is still accredited to administer and interpret psychological assessments, he added that "my intuitive analysis of how to improve the labels we use in travel" is, perhaps, "an occupational hazard." He prefers the term "independent agent."

Location, famously described by real estate agents as the top three most important qualities of a piece of property, is not also the three most important attributes a travel agent possesses. But the decision that agents make about where clients can find them -- on the Web, in their home, in an office or any combination thereof -- is of great strategic importance.

At Travel Weekly's Home Based Travel Agent Show and Conference earlier this month in Fort Lauderdale, the question of location-as-brand came up in several sessions. Priscilla Alexander, CEO of Protravel International, which hosts many agents who work out of their homes, brought up the topic during a general session on the future of travel agents.

"Agents who are home-based should not ... divide themselves as being separate from the total selling travel industry," she said. "I think you're, first of all, travel agents, travel counselors, travel advisers. And for you to keep differentiating yourself is a little bit unfair to yourself, and you're putting yourself in sort of a secondary role, which you are not.

"Remember: Most people who are in advanced brick-and-mortar agencies today have Voice Over IP [telephones]. They're working from phones no matter where they're sitting. The person calling in has no idea whether they're sitting on a beach in Fiji or in an office in New York City."

Johnson raised his hand in a different general session, urging a panel of large host agencies and franchisors targeting agents who work out of their homes to come up with another label for their members.

In that same session, panelist Michael Drever, CEO of Expedia CruiseShipCenters, said he urged his franchisees to refer to themselves as "mobile agents" because it suggested a more active positioning.

The question of what to call agents in various locales is not new. Five years ago, I held a contest to give new names not only to home agents but also brick-and-mortar agencies and online travel agencies, noting that very few agencies at that time were what their labels suggested -- i.e., most home and brick-and-mortar agencies had websites, and most OTAs had large call centers. I received a significant response; the suggestions, strung together, ran 11 pages.

None was memorable.

The former Professor Johnson suggests that agents, home-based or not, look to their specialization and credentials and label themselves accordingly. "We have emerged as travel experts with titles like cruise counselors, destination experts and event planners," he wrote to me.

Should we go more granular, as Johnson suggests, or broader, as Alexander recommends: travel agent, travel counselor, travel adviser? Or should we just stay put?

I think it's important to remember that this is an inside-the-industry controversy. As Alexander suggested, consumers on the phone (or online) don't know where you're sitting, and they likely don't care. The debate is about how suppliers categorize agents and, importantly, how agents think of themselves.

I don't know if it's important for suppliers to differentiate between home-based and brick-and-mortar agents for marketing and sales purposes, but several do. In the end, I think the need for the industry to categorize agents depends upon whether the needs of travel agents working from home are different from those of agents working in an office or those who are running large online operations.

I've seen research that says home-based agents have the same basic needs as agents in offices, and I have spoken to suppliers who feel an agent is an agent is an agent.

But I have also spoken with a significant number of home agents who feel they do have different needs, and I've spoken to suppliers who have specific plans for targeting home-based agents.

In every industry, some legacy labels stick even though they are no longer wholly accurate. I don't think you'll see the country's most profitable airline, Southwest, change its name anytime soon, even though it now flies to the Northeast.

The important thing, as Alexander suggested, is the degree to which these labels affect the way you think about yourself. Southwest did not feel limited by its location-centric branding. Regardless of whether home-based agents embrace or reject industry terminology, the one thing everyone agrees on is that they should never feel restricted by it.

Email Arnie Weissmann at aweissmann@travelweekly.com and follow him on Twitter.

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