Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

Henri Giscard d'Estaing, the son of former French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing, arrived in New York earlier this month and celebrated the awarding of a master's degree to his daughter Sophie from New York University's Center for Global Affairs.

But while in town, he made time to meet some other millennials.

Specifically, he wanted to meet millennial travel agents. Giscard d'Estaing is chairman and CEO of Club Med, and he had arranged an informal focus group to better understand the mindset of young travel advisers. He wants to attract more millennial guests to his all-inclusive brand and thought a panel of 20- and 30-something retailers might provide insight.

Giscard d'Estaing; Xavier Mufraggi, Club Med's CEO for North America; and Sabrina Cendral, the company's vice president of marketing and digital, discovered not only the basis for a path forward for Club Med sales to young adults but the possibility for a new breed of travel adviser, a type distinct from home-based, brick-and-mortar and OTAs.

And while youth isn't a requirement, the skill set for this emerging retailer aligns well with millennial traits: few time-consuming commitments, a passion for authentic experiences and digital nativism.

"Because the tools of the previous generations of travel agents, like the GDS, were on their desks, they could travel but had to be at their office to get much of their work done," Giscard d'Estaing said. "They could go on fam trips and inspect properties and answer emails, but much of their work, and the service they provided clients, had to wait for their return."

The new category of agent could be on the road more often than not, while still providing both high booking productivity and levels of service.

For some time, millennial agents have been facile at combining work and travel, but they had other challenges. As a result of their youth, they didn't have as much firsthand experience in the places they might want to sell, and what travel experience they did have did not necessarily help them sell to their peers. If, for example, they had been to a Club Med as a child, they would have had a very different experience from what they would do there today as a young adult.

The brand, too, has evolved. Giscard d'Estaing said, "Their parents' Club Med of 20 years ago is not the same as today's Club Med."

During his millennial panel, Giscard d'Estaing observed that, although the participants were competitors, they all knew one another and already had established an informal information-sharing network. They spoke the same social and generational language and trusted each other's judgment.

"There is a network because they can't be expert in everything," he said. "It is a social phenomenon. You trust your pals more than institutions. It has moved from classic media, even the information we put out, to their own generational network."

And this circle of trust extends to their clients, as well.

"Price is not an issue" for the millennials he would like to target, Giscard d'Estaing said. "Proper advice is the issue."

Mufraggi said his takeaway was that young agents want to convey the excitement of travel as they're experiencing it. "They want to say, 'I've just eaten here, and you have to try it.' They want to combine work and travel and create moments for clients as they travel."

"They want to be field agents," Cendral said.

Club Med wants to facilitate this. Giscard d'Estaing was inspired to begin work on an entirely different type of fam trip.

"I want to ask them to get together with their agent friends to come to the property, and not just at a grand opening," he said. "They could have half a day to keep doing business and the rest of the day simply experience the property. This would not be a trip where they visit room after room after room."

It struck me that the field agent model would be an extremely attractive option to bring young people into the industry. In fact, it sounds like a dream job and would likely have appeal beyond millennials, drawing digitally savvy empty nesters, Dinks (dual income, no kids) or those seeking post-retirement careers.

Such agents could shake up the industry, possibly disrupting existing models. Every adviser knows that being able to tell a client, "I have seen it," makes an enormous difference. "I am looking at it right now" takes that one step further. The offering of fams has been on the decline, but newly structured fams targeting field agents could proliferate, particularly among destinations and properties with appeal to millennials.

"Can you imagine your travel agent answering questions in real time, from the destination?" Mufraggi said. "They can say, 'Let me check the room, and I'll call you back.' That's much more powerful than TripAdvisor."

I like Cendral's label of "field agent" for this new category, though it might require some adjustment of other agent labeling. Just as many travel advisers are now referred to as "traditional travel agents," today's leaders in digital bookings might soon be shoved into "legacy" status. And while OTAs may chafe at it, they could soon be called "traditional online travel agencies."


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