To make it in the fast-paced, ever-changing Internet era, travel agencies need to develop stronger marketing plans for their websites, and they cannot depend as much on their business cards and email newsletters to drive traffic.
This was the recommendation ASTA made based on the findings of a recent survey of 366 member agencies.
The survey, conducted in April and May, asked agencies about their technology and Web usage. It found that 80% of agencies have websites, a number that has increased significantly since 2005, when 67% of agencies reported having websites.
However, the survey also found that number has plateaued. In 2007, 80% of agencies said they had websites, a rate that actually decreased to 75% in 2009, before climbing back over the last two years.
One explanation for this, ASTA suggests, is that some newer agencies are creating Facebook pages for their businesses and bypassing websites altogether. (Click on the image, left, for a larger view of a chart depicting how agencies advertise their web presence other than through their own websites.)
"For younger agents and second careers, it seems to be that social media, Facebook predominantly, takes the place of a website," said Melissa Teates, ASTA's director of research.
More established agencies, she said, might bypass websites because they generally get new clients through referrals and have a mature client base.
Scott Klososky, a technology expert who trains organizations to use online tools, does not think it is a good idea to depend solely on a Facebook page.
"There are many people that are not on Facebook, and I think any day there could be a lot of people flocking off of it to something else," he said. "That will not happen to the Web in general, so I would always have a Web property first and a Facebook page second."
Carrie Finley-Bajak, president of CruiseBuzz.net and a former travel agent who now helps other travel retailers implement social media strategies, said that online presence should be broad.
"New agents who want an online presence should create a marketing plan that will include Facebook, Google+, Pinterest, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube," she said. "A website that is individualized and branded to the agent is necessary to drive traffic from social sites. All breadcrumbs online, calls to action, should point to the agent's website."
In terms of marketing that site, ASTA found that 72% of agents still list their business cards as the top way they advertise Web presence, followed by email newsletters (55%) and social media (50%).
Finley-Bajak recommended that agents who want to market themselves online do it online, using Facebook, TripAdvisor, Twitter chats, Google+, comments on YouTube videos, Pinterest and Instagram.
"Travel agents have the best assets around: passion, expertise and objectivity," she said. "The marketing plan should feature opportunities to showcase the agent in their best light. Participate in online activities that will allow for the most exposure to showcase the added value of using the agent."
An example, she said, is joining live Twitter parties focused on travel topics.
Make your website unique
Among agencies that have websites, 31% have an online booking tool, but it doesn't appear that it generates much revenue. Agents reported that only 8% of their revenue is directly booked on their websites, a share that has not increased since 2007.
Most agents (86%) say they mostly use their websites to provide an email link to their agency, while 73% use it to identify their areas of specialization.
After examining many ASTA-agency websites, Finley-Bajak said too many are sub-accounts of a franchiser or host company's main website.
"This does not help generate results," she said.
Since these types of sites are "shells from a parent company," some with outbound links to that parent's corporate site that never mention the travel agent, Finley-Bajak said they can be counterproductive.
"If an agent can't spend the time, resources and money to create a Web presence that will showcase their individual expertise, style and calls to action," she said, "then by all means, a Facebook page is enough."
Even so, the survey found that most ASTA member agencies are not sold on the idea of social media.
Only 15% said it was essential to participate in services like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. A larger group (20%) believes that social media is "unproven," while 29% say that they are "still learning how to use social media." (Click on the image, left, for a larger view of how agents view participation in social media sites.)
Whether they think it's essential or not, most agencies are active in social media of some kind. Almost half (49%) say they have used Facebook, while 44% are on LinkedIn. Only 24% do not use any social media.
Social media usage varies widely depending on an agent's network affiliation.
North America's largest consortium, Vacation.com, reports that 40% of its agencies have Facebook pages and that 15% update them weekly.
Host agency Nexion says that roughly 1,960 Nexion agents, about 61%, actively use social media.
The Signature Travel Network reported that 80% of its members have a company Facebook page, and 25% use Twitter.
Signature's "State of the Market Survey" of its members in August found that an increasing number of members are utilizing Pinterest.
Part of the reason agencies in the ASTA study might not be sold on social media is that they do not see an obvious return on investment; 86% said that they get fewer than five leads per month via social media.
Klososky said that being able to really generate leads requires agents to use a variety of online tools.
"My experience with small businesses in general, and especially in the travel space, is that they really are not very good at using online tools or social tools to drive leads," he said.
"Given the fact that there are thousands of agencies, and they all compete for the same travelers in many cases, it is a messy market for leads. With that said, there are lots of techniques that would help them if they knew how to use them."
However, agencies do seem to understand that the value of social media might be as much about promoting their brands as it is about generating leads.
When asked what they considered the goal of their agency's use of social media, 27% it was "awareness/general promotion/advertising," while more than 21% said it was to "generate new business/expand customer base."
But in keeping with the direction of the survey, the largest group (28%) answered that where social media was concerned, they were "not sure/plan to develop goals."
Many of these agencies might be apprehensive about social media simply because they are not trained to use it and feel they don't have the time or money to invest in it.
When asked what was "the largest technical issue facing your agency in the future," the top answers were: "Improved Social Media Program/Updated Website," "Affordability, Implementation and Training for New Technology" and "Keeping Up With Changes/Replacing Older Equipment & Software."
When asked to provide written reasons for these concerns, agents often said they were too busy or didn't have the right tools.
The bottom line for a lot of agents when it comes to keeping up with technology was expressed by one agent who wrote, "Technology changes so fast, is confusing, [there are] so many options to consider, [and it's] expensive."
Relying on supplier sites
While clients aren't buying much online from travel agencies, agents are booking quite a bit on supplier websites.
This year, agencies estimate that 42% of the bookings they make are through supplier sites, a jump of 11 percentage points since 2006. That number has ebbed and flowed; in 2009 it reach 45%.
Travel insurance ranks as the product most agents have purchased online (84%), followed by hotels (80%) and air (80%); tours (78%); and cruise (76%).
This represents a huge jump in some categories compared with 2005, when only 59% of agents had booked hotels online and just 47% had booked on cruise websites. However, in some categories, the number of agents that have booked online has fallen. In 2005, 85% of agents had purchased tours on the Web.
And despite the frustration agents have with not being able to book most ancillaries through their GDSs, they are still booking them.
This year, only 12% of agents said their clients handled their own ancillary bookings, down from 17% in 2011. And 24% of agents book ancillary services directly with the vendor for clients, a jump of 7 points since 2011.
Still, the biggest group of agents (39%) are undecided about how to handle ancillaries, saying they "sometimes book, sometimes advise only."
Follow Johanna Jainchill on Twitter @jjainchilltw.
At-home agents seeing value of social media
Social media was viewed by travel agents as one of the top three marketing approaches this year, the first time it was added as a survey option to Travel Weekly's Travel Industry Survey.
Echoing previous surveys, email to clients (72%) tops the list, far ahead of the second place answer, the agency website, at 47%.
Overall, 39% of agents said they use some form of Internet-based social media to attract new clients.
Social media as a marketing tool is most popular among lower-volume, home-based agents and also among the largest retail agencies.
Midsize and smaller retail agencies use it far less.
Jamie Turner, the co-author of "Go Mobile" and the founder of 60SecondMarketer.com
, suggested that this finding might derive from the fact that the lower volume, home-based agents view social media as "free advertising."
Even so, he said, "It's not actually free, because time equals money, and the large firms know that they've got to be in social media because their competitors are."
But Turner said, "The folks in the middle are probably in the growth stage, moving from mid-tier players to larger players. They simply don't have the bandwidth to handle everything, so social media gets put aside a little bit."
The survey also suggested that larger brick-and-mortar agencies are most dependent on their websites, with 71% of agents from traditional agencies with sales of $10 million or more identifying their website as the most important way to attract new clients or keep current ones.
That number drops significantly both with smaller retail agencies and with all categories of home-based agencies.
Travel Leaders Group Chief Marketing Officer Stephen McGillivray said it was "no surprise" that agencies were turning to social media as a top marketing approach, "particularly because it's low-cost and is yet another way to engage travelers in an interactive fashion." -- J.J.