Don't open the box -- dance outside it

By Richard Turen
Richard TurenThis is my final say in 2012. Christmas and New Year's will soon be here, celebrations initiated by the Romans, of course, who held a celebration to honor Saturn, their god in charge of harvests, the Trader Joe of his day, and Mithras, the god of light.

We'll be opening our gifts, our little Amazon boxes tied with bows, and we'll relax for a few days before beginning a new year of travel facilitation.

(Of course, it might be less than an auspicious beginning since, as I write these words, we seem to be preparing for a trip that will take us off the fiscal cliff. In fact, this path seems so certain at the moment that Southwest has already announced that it will be flying the route.)

But I'm optimistic. I think it is going to be an incredible year, and I think we'll all be fine if we somehow can learn to pull together and avoid the old theories and business models -- you know, the ones that were served up to us three or four months ago.

Let me suggest a simple New Year's resolution: Promise yourself that you will try to think outside the box. Here are a few strategies that might help:

Take 15 or so of your brightest clients and ask them if they would serve on your client advisory board.

You can offer them certain travel amenities for their service. Set up the board as a simple email from you to them soliciting opinions and feedback. Ask them, for example, what they would do if you determined not to book anything lower than a four-star hotel? How would they feel if you subcontracted your air, enabling you to better concentrate on other areas? Ask them which amenities they think would attract the greatest number of new clients. Have them suggest the design of a client referral plan.

Think about setting up a website that actually talks to your clients.

Take an hour or two and look over travel agency sites. They all look alike. Most feature the same advertisers. They often subscribe to services that provide the same "user feedback" forms. They all seem to be price-oriented.

Why not design a revolutionary travel website, one that follows none of the rules, a place where your clients are engaged without sales pitches or hype. Why not tell them that discount pricing, for the most part, is a kind of scam because everyone gets the same discounts. Tell them you won't be insulting their intelligence, then set out to prove it.

Launch a campaign to let your clients know that virtually all online travel agencies, home-based agents and retailers have access to the exact same pricing.

Actually talk about how we are compensated. But the conversation doesn't always have to be about pricing. It should be about trust and competence. Don't be afraid to step out of the box and explain why booking directly with a supplier is a ripoff, because the travel agent services are not included but the fees still are. Keeping the consumer in the dark about compensation and commission is not in our best interest.

Consider working exclusively with hotels that will do something specific for the clients you send them.

It is not reasonable for your clients to expect that you will have a personal relationship with every hotel property on the planet. But why not work with the ones with whom you have a business relationship and a signed agreement to provide your clients with specific amenities. Consortia members have this kind of program. It might make sense to inform clients that you do not book properties where "I can't really do anything for you."

Send your clients an annual shareholder's report.

The best way to compete with no-face travel sellers is to enhance your sense of intimacy with your clients. Nothing does that better than telling them the truth about the status of your business. Tell them what is selling well, what destinations are down and why. Talk about your future plans and even mention those areas where you might want to do better. Talk to your clients as valued friends interested in your welfare.

Schedule a weekend retreat with your entire staff to discuss a social media strategy.

You either control it or it will control you. I sense that too many agents are being sucked into social media because they are told it is a business necessity. It isn't, but you need to make social media a top priority in terms of a full hearing as to whether your firm should dive into those waters. Have some members of your staff play the role of advocates, while others play skeptics. If you have already jumped into the fray, consider an estimate of actual costs over the next three years. What are your most reasonable expectations? How will you determine if your social media efforts have been a financial success or a failure?

Hang up a map of the world and place pins where you personally need to find the best local contacts for your clients.

This should be a primary goal for the coming year. Your business is likely international in scope. Your clients might all be from Kansas, but they are traveling all over the world. Like any other retail model, your strength is derived from the close contacts you have made where they are needed. How will you prioritize your time in the coming year to nail down those contacts?

Make this the year you profit from supplier office meetings.

Decide that you will create truly memorable office meetings with your current and future suppliers. Do this by creating a marketing plan in which you commit to certain activities in support of their efforts. Your marketing plan, which the supplier must sign, rewards your actions in some specific ways. In other words, the goal of every supplier meeting is a signed contract of mutual support.

Ask the "big question" in every future client encounter:

"What would my team and I have to do so that six months after your trip you were referring to it as 'one of the best travel experiences of my life'?" If you ask that question in the beginning, your clients will likely divulge what it is that really matters most to them.

It's Christmas. What better time to think about how every booking in 2013 can benefit someone who needs help?

I think the jury is still out on the degree to which our clients really care about how green their rental car or hotel room is. But every study shows they do care when they are working with a travel firm that takes some portion of their profits and donates it to those who truly need a boost. To start out, you might want to visit CharityNavigator.com, a site that rates nonprofit charities.

In the meantime, I can't thank you enough for your kind comments and support. Wishing you and yours an absolutely smashing, healthy and out-of-the-box New Year.

Contributing editor Richard Turen owns Churchill and Turen, a vacation-planning firm that has been named to Conde Nast Traveler's list of the World's Top Travel Specialists since the list began. Contact him at rturen@travelweekly.com. 
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