Tour Operators Suppliers differ in how they move direct biz to agents By Michelle Baran / February 16, 2011 Share 1 -- As retailers head into 2011 with an eye on recovery, how and whether they get consumer leads is crucial to growing their business. Many suppliers have a system in place for transferring direct business to travel agents, but which agents actually get the bookings and the corresponding commissions depends on the supplier. "There really are a number of ways that they will point a traveler to working with a travel agent," said Suzanne Hall, senior director of marketing and development for land products at Ensemble Travel Group. "To be honest, it’s much more cost-effective for a supplier to point a traveler to work with a travel specialist, because they can direct them to the right product." Stephen McGillivray, vice president of marketing and public relations at Vacation.com, added that getting on a supplier’s lead list is an added incentive for agents. "Oftentimes, the supplier has these key account groups, they have their top sellers," McGillivray said. "Oftentimes, that’s one of the perks and [benefits] they give to these groups of the top producers, is that they [get] the lead when consumers come to their website." For example, Contiki, a tour operator that specializes in the 18-to-35 market, works with one larger agency when it can’t handle inquiry loads. "Contiki receives a high volume of online requests, and to assist us during those times, we have an arrangement with a long-standing partner of ours, America’s Vacation Center," said Contiki President Greg Fischbein. "And yes, if the AVC agents close the sale, we pay commission," he added. But Hall said that directing consumers to a single agent partner is not a practice that Ensemble supports. "I understand the need to really have criteria for listing an agent in their agent finder, either because they have a preferred relationship with their consortium or a sales requirement, which is representative of the fact that they’re knowledgeable in the product," Hall said. "I don’t think anyone would dispute that. But I think directing all consumers to one partner … is a disincentive. I would not support a relationship like that." When Travel Weekly asked Avoya Travel/America’s Vacation Center about the nature of its partnership with Contiki, the agency responded that it does not disclose specific relationships with customers, independent affiliates, partners or publishers. To be clear, Fischbein noted that the customer always has the option to book directly with Contiki and not with a travel agent. Similarly, at Collette Vacations, the tour operator gives customers who call directly the option to use a travel agent. "For the past couple of years, when we get a direct booking, we walk a good amount of that to local agent partners," said Frank Marini, vice president of sales at Collette. Marini said that now, when Collette receives direct calls, call center representatives will ask the customer if they are working with a local travel agent and if not, if they would like to. And while there are instances in which customers choose not to, Marini said the amount of bookings that get transferred to agents is worth “well over a million dollars each year." As for how Collette picks the agency that gets the business, Marini said it is done by random selection. The tour operator looks to travel agents who are in the same geographic area as the customer. As long as the agent or agency has done some business with Collette in the past, regardless of how much or how little, they have an equal chance of getting the randomly selected lead, according to Marini. Many suppliers have installed agent-finder programs on their websites or have other methods for encouraging customers to work with a travel agent. "It’s a fairly common practice. Lots of tour operators and a lot of cruise lines do this, and we think it’s an outstanding idea," McGillivray said. "The reason they do it is that a retailer sells up more than any supplier does direct."