Arnie WeissmannTraditional and home-based travel agents, most of whom feel the heat of competition from online travel agencies, believe that the key advantage they hold today is their ability to offer high levels of service and establish personal relationships with clients.

I've noticed, however, that the definition of "personalized service" can vary greatly between newer agents and those with more experience.

Jason Beukema of Whett Travel in Miami Beach is one of the most successful young agents I know. He has been in business for about six years and has never worked in a traditional retail environment. I invited him to be a guest presenter on a Travel Weekly webinar I hosted last week titled "How to Make More Money as a Home-Based Agent," during which he stressed the importance of customer service and communicating regularly with clients. (To access the webinar, click here.) 

Beukema, who is a member of both Vacation.com and Nexion, recently chartered the 1,928-passenger Norwegian Sky to host a "Groove Cruise" for his client base. One might well wonder how a home agent can possibly provide personalized service to the almost 2,000 clients preparing to take his cruise.

The answer is that he has mastered social media, blending high touch with high tech. He has 50,000 online followers, fans and friends, and he can efficiently send a "bon voyage" or "welcome back" note, thank them for their business or even wish them a happy birthday via mass customization. Such an approach might seem impersonal to a previous generation, but he adeptly exploits the communications platforms with which his target market is most comfortable.

Nancy Weinstein, a San Diego independent affiliate of America's Vacation Center, was also a guest speaker on the webinar. A home agent for four years, she has a more traditional book of business, focusing broadly on cruises and tours, but she is also obsessed with service, technology and efficiency.

She relies on AVC-provided technology to bring her leads and keep her business organized (she considers the integrated technology platform to be her "assistant"), but she also believes a key to her success is that her smartphone enables her to always be accessible to her clients.

"The Internet is my competition, and they're selling 24/7," she said. Her clients, she noted, are often surprised when she takes their calls on evenings or weekends, yet she also feels that the smartphone gives her freedom. She is not tied to a desk and can take calls or do her email anywhere.

Not everyone is willing to blend their personal and professional lives so thoroughly, of course. Questions came in from those attending the webinar asking how she sets boundaries, and one person straightforwardly asked, "What about us older agents who do not quite have the same level of energy?"

After the webinar was over, Jason sent this answer: "Maybe that is your niche ... find older clients who like relaxed trips at a slow pace ... call it turtle travel :-)."

Other questions centered on how to compete with the Internet. But research by the Ypartnership has shown that online/offline consumer booking behavior is complex. Many consumers who use traditional and home travel agents for complicated or costly vacations also use online agencies and supplier sites for simple point-to-point air purchases or for a few nights' hotel stay. Consumers might view agents as "specialists" but go to the online travel agencies for routine purchases.

Ed Rudner believes that this bifurcated approach does not bode well for travel agents. Rudner has wide industry experience: He was CFO and then COO for Alamo Rent a Car, he was CEO of Certified Tours, CEO of Renaissance Cruises and is currently chairman of Online Vacation Center, a site focusing on cruise sales.

And, most recently, Rudner has taken an interest in home agents, buying an Expedia CruiseShipCenters franchise.

Rudner famously overestimated the power of the Internet vs. travel agents when he moved Renaissance to a direct-sales model about a decade ago, shortly before the cruise line went out of business. He now believes that the combination of today's advanced technology with personalized service puts travel agents in the best position they have been in for many years.

"I've become a believer," he told me over the phone last week.

Among the things Rudner believes is that the move toward niche specialization has damaged a crucial aspect of the agent/client relationship. "If I want to book a two-week cruise with my agent, he's really interested in me," Rudner said. "If I want to book three nights at a Holiday Inn to visit my aunt in Des Moines, he's not so quick to call back. That's not the kind of relationship most consumers want."

Rudner said that the pre-Internet model, in which agents provided everything from airline tickets to cruises to hotel stays to tours, had the virtue of establishing a client-agent relationship that was refreshed several times a year, whereas a specialist agent might only have one opportunity annually around which to build a meaningful rapport with clients.

He said he's hooked on Expedia's technology platform, which makes it easy for clients to book their own flights, hotels and packages but has also integrated CRM tools so it's easy to maintain personal communication even on these simple purchases.

"If technology evolves the way we think it will, we'll go back to being a full-service agency," he said. "Suppliers will get into it. They miss travel agents more than they think they do. You can have specialization and a general approach, side by side."

The irony of Expedia potentially being the travel agent's savior is not lost on Rudner.

"You can't really compete with Expedia," he said. "But if you can't beat 'em ..."

Whether or not Expedia's platform is ultimately seen as superior, it's clear that technology and the Internet, which 10 years ago appeared to represent substantial threats to travel agents, are being embraced by them to their benefit. Whether or not the move toward social media, CRM, online lead generation and Web bookings is done offensively or defensively doesn't really matter. To paraphrase the country singer-songwriter Ray Wylie Hubbard, some convert because they see the light, others 'cause they feel the heat.

Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.

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