Tour operators seek to bolster call centers

By Michelle Baran

As the phones start ringing again, tour operators and packagers are faced with the challenge of how to make sure the calls get answered quickly enough so that they don’t risk losing crucial sales opportunities.

"Through the phone stats that we have, we’re able to track how long people will stay on the phone before they start hanging up," said Richard Launder, president of TravCorp USA.

"You start the see the first dropouts after about 50 seconds. That is the threshold that you have to bear in mind when you do your staffing. In a perfect world, we would like to make sure that the average speed of answer would be under a minute."

TravCorp USA operates several brands, including Trafalgar Tours, Insight Vacations, Contiki Holidays and Uniworld River Cruise.

In order to capitalize on rising call volumes, operators and packagers have to make sure they have enough people on staff to answer the phones and that those people are trained to ensure the highest level of both customer service and, ultimately, successful sales.

But if tour operators are going to bring in more reservation agents for the high booking season from January through June, they have start hiring and training those people about October or November of the preceding year. For the 2010 booking season, that meant tour operators and packagers had to make crucial hiring decisions when there was still a great deal of uncertainty about the health of the market.

So, they had two options:

1) Bank on a considerable turnaround and hire the staff to meet increased call volume and demand. The risk is that if demand doesn’t materialize, they lose significant payroll overhead.

2) Hold back on hiring staff but risk not having enough people to answer the phones when the calls started coming back in, and consequently lose business.

"You do have to take a leap of faith, particularly in 2009 in terms of what 2010 was going to look like," Launder said. "We were reasonably confident." Because the call center directors understand the targets, he said, "there’s sort of a formula that we can then back into."

During the recession, Launder said he had to make difficult cutbacks resulting in about 200 layoffs, which brought the total number of TravCorp USA employees to 440. Since September, however, the company has hired 50 people, mostly in the call centers. Some were brought on as late as January, something that he said is almost never done.

Other operators and packagers also brought on more people.

"We thought the business would rebound about 10%, and that’s what we hired," said Steve Gorga, president and CEO of Travel Impressions. But, he added, "The numbers have been much greater than that."

Subsequently, what Travel Impressions did to meet the call demand was set up a program internally called "red light, yellow light, green light." If a call is holding more than two minutes, it goes to a yellow light, which signals anyone in the call center who is available to pick up the call. If the caller is waiting seven to eight minutes, the call goes to red light, which means that even Gorga himself, or anyone at any level in the company, could get on the phone to assist the caller.

The Globus Family of Brands has initiated a different strategy. About three years ago, rather than continuing to use temp workers to manage seasonal fluctuations in call volumes, Globus began using what it calls "seasonal" employees.

"They were employed on a contract basis, maybe for six months as opposed to a whole year," said Steve Born, senior vice president of marketing at Globus. "What we did to manage with the downturn, last year we actually did not hire our seasonal staff. We knew back in October [2008] that demand was going to be lower."

In contrast, he said, this year the company did hire seasonal staff, who he said represent about 10% of Globus’ total workforce.

In addition to the seasonal staff, Born said Globus has a roster of telecommuters whom it can call on during days or periods when call volumes are likely to be high.

"Our goal is one call," Born said. "Our mission is that we don’t require the agent to call back."

Jack Richards, president and CEO of Pleasant Holidays, has a slightly different mission: to gradually move away from calls altogether.

"We’ve been seeing about a 10% shift from offline to online bookings [annually] over the past five years," Richards said. Consequently, he noted, "We are spending a majority of our capital expense budget on our technology. If you can get the speed of technology up, you need fewer reservation agents."

Nevertheless, Pleasant Holidays still hired additional reservation staff last fall for the start of the 2010 booking season. Richards said he increased staff about 27% to meet the anticipated growth in call volume. The fall expansion, he said, kept the number of employees at Pleasant Holidays about flat year over year.

The bottom line, said Globus’ Born, is that "when travel agents talk about a supplier, they talk about [the reservation center experience] more than anything else — more than the product, more than the commission. When they have a client right there, the last thing they need is to keep the client in suspense."

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