Travel agents like to trumpet their ability to sell, their intense product knowledge and the unsurpassed customer service they offer.
What many brag about far less is their ability to find new customers.
Travel sellers are not alone in this.
A recent survey in Selling Power magazine, a publication focused on sales training and education, found that lead generation was the single most important sales issue, followed by prospecting.
In all, 55% of the respondents said the biggest obstacle for sales professionals was identifying clients.
Scott Koepf, the recently appointed vice president of sales for America’s Vacation Center, said that challenge has been apparent to him in both his former position as head of the National Association of Career Travel Agents and, before that, as the general manager of the Nexion host agency and president of Cruise Holidays International.
In his former positions, Koepf said, he realized that the marketing aspect of being a travel agent was so difficult that it stymied growth for otherwise talented salespeople who had to sell products and services to their clients while also learning everything they could about marketing.
"It is difficult to be an expert in both fields," he said. "There are travel professionals who really know the business. They are well trained in sales and know how to deal with clients and have good relationships, but where they struggle is how to get the clients."
Jack Mannix, the former president of Ensemble Travel who now has his own consultancy, said most retailers do not focus nearly enough on lead generation.
"We don’t pay enough attention to it, and it will become an increasing problem," he said. "Like any business, no matter how good you are, sooner or later your customers will stop buying from you. The most extreme example of that is that they die. You have to figure out how to put new customers in the pipeline."
Mannix said what is making the issue more urgent is that travelers are becoming less loyal to their agents. He pointed to data from cruise lines suggesting that only 25% to 30% of cruise buyers use the same agent for consecutive cruise purchases.
One reason for that, he said, is that agents promote their product but not themselves.
"It’s great for you to be selling the cruise line and doing the mailings," Mannix said. "But typically the materials [agents] are sending out to people have nothing in there about why the customer should buy from that agent. What are you doing to promote you and what’s unique about you and your depth of knowledge of the area and the intensity of your service?"
That sentiment was echoed by Vicki Freed, senior vice president of sales for Royal Caribbean International.
"Agents' biggest challenge is expanding their client base and keeping existing clients coming back," she said. "There are plenty of great marketing pieces available for agents: supplier-provided, consortia-provided, as well as large agencies having their own marketing machine going [in the form of] staff on hand that does the marketing. They just need to have enough people in their database to send them to."
Clients 'need to brag'
Freed said travel agents must "remind, encourage and plant the referral gene" in their clients’ minds so that when those clients brag about a cruise to their friends, they not only cite the merits of the cruise but also the quality of the agency that sold it to them.
"They need to brag about how the travel agent booked their cruise vacation on Royal or any cruise line," she said. "It is the ‘how’ that gets left out of the discussion. There are [ways] that agents can get that referral gene into the conversation."
AVC hangs its hat on its Live Lead program, billing itself as the host agency that is most focused on that aspect of the business.
Brad Anderson, co-president of AVC, said member agents are working "during the evening from home, and so we’ve invested tremendous amount of money in our technology. We have focused on making our independent affiliates extremely efficient by integrating their database with our marketing and booking engines.
"We add the most important ingredient based on [the Selling Power] survey. We’ve solved that problem. We connect live new clients with independent affiliates."
Lead generation and marketing prowess are primary reasons many agents turn to host agencies and consortia.
While most consortia offer some level of lead generation, marketing tools seem to be a more important aspect of their programs than providing live leads.
Mannix claims that AVC is the leader in terms of lead generation, while most consortia are very effective in helping agents mine their existing database to find, qualify and expand the customers within that group.
Vicky Garcia, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Cruise Planners, said her group did a great deal of marketing for its members and also provided myriad tools to franchises that enable them "to do as much or as little as they want with their business."
"Those who are new to the industry might need more help to generate leads at first," she said. "And we have programs to help them from day one, even providing them with their own database of 200 ‘cruisers’ to market to."
Cruise Planners then provides them with marketing materials and education programs to teach them to market and generate their own leads.
"We don’t want to just give them fish; we’d rather teach them how to fish," Garcia said. "We believe the agent’s biggest strength is as a consultant, a professional to help guide the customer to the right product. They can’t all be marketing experts, too."
Koepf said AVC’s Live Lead program was the main reason he returned to retail.
"There are a number of host models out there, and many are excellent and provide excellent services," he said. "AVC goes beyond providing service and the amalgamation of business. It’s a marketing company. … That is the beauty of this relationship. They have their own business, but now they have a marketing resource that works for them."
Anderson said the Internet compounds the already difficult task of prospecting because so much shopping is done online, which is an elusive landscape in which to look for prospects.
"Consumers are now shopping for everything — cars, toys for Christmas and vacations — by going online and researching," Anderson said. "Most agents, whether they are home-based or brick-and-mortar, struggle to deal with the complexity of trying to reach those prospects, even if they live next door."
Many consumers looking online will inevitably end up at the cruise lines’ own websites, where they will often buy direct.
Crystal Cruises’ lead-generation program, offered only to its top agents, forwards to the agents calls that consumers make to Crystal.
Crystal charges agents $6,000 per year for the leads. The line says that averages out to about $22 per lead, while it says each lead costs Crystal $230 to generate.
Crystal executives say they find it surprising that many agents do not capitalize on this valuable resource.
"We’re giving them these incredible leads, and they are taking two hours to respond?’" Bill Smith, Crystal’s senior vice president of sales, wondered last June. "At some point, we’ll start penalizing people and taking them out."
Nitsa Lewis, vice president of marketing for Crystal, said the agents who are most successful with the program "give great attention to immediate follow-up. They understand that we are giving them a ‘hot lead’ and need to treat it as such. If they don’t respond quickly or provide a level of service that is anticipated as a Crystal Cruises agent, they may not get the business and are not maximizing the benefits of the program, for Crystal or for them."
‘Don’t keep me a secret'
Last week, Colette Carlson of SpeakYourTruth.com focused much of her keynote address at CruiseOne and Cruises Inc.’s 2010 national conference aboard the Norwegian Epic on encouraging agents to make an extra effort to get referrals.
"We’ve got to start asking consistently for referrals," Carlson told to the audience. "It’s common sense, but it’s not common practice. … It’s as easy as saying, ‘Don’t keep me a secret.’ "
Dwain Wall, senior vice president and general manager of CruiseOne and Cruises Inc., said the company has been successful at retaining customers, with a repeat rate of three out of five in an industry in which the average is one out of five.
Still, he said, acquiring leads is imperative.
"What we’ve got to be better at is new customers," he said. "That’s what we’re focused on. Whether they are land-based, river boats or whatever it happens to be, we need to attract that new consumer."
He said the company was doing that by relaunching its consumer website and doing exhaustive research on ways to attract more site visitors, even using eyeball-tracking technology to ascertain how people behave on websites and buying more keywords on Google.
"The new consumer sites have helped us dramatically," Wall said.
In addition, the company hired a vice president of marketing and communications from Burger King, Luis Zuniga, whose entire focus is to create brand recognition for CruiseOne and Cruises Inc.
This report appeared in the Oct. 25 issue of Travel Weekly.