Geoff Millar held senior software sales positions for very large companies -- Boeing, Chase Manhattan and Control Data -- for much of his career. His demeanor and speech convey intelligence and a soft-spoken authority. He's quick to make a personal connection. He lives and breathes the qualities companies seek in sales executives.
He also has a strong entrepreneurial streak and was involved in several startups. He partnered with the artist who sculpted the bronze lion outside the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas to develop a computer system for art galleries to display inventory that is not on their walls. (A version was developed for interior decorators as well.) He became involved with a firm that provided phone and customized technical support to large companies and the government. And on the side, he was involved with an enterprise that dispatched a fleet of ice cream carts at convention centers.
Around the turn of the millennium, he decided it was time to focus on one business, something that he and his wife, Sharon, could run together. Sharon had been involved in the travel industry for 18 years at that point and was managing an agency. Shortly after 9/11, the agency's owner, like so many others, decided it was a good time to retire and close the business.
In what was arguably the industry's darkest hour, the Millars saw the opportunity they had been looking for, and after negotiating with Sharon's boss, they became owners of Ultimate All-Inclusive Travel in Gilbert, Ariz.
At last week's Global Travel Marketplace West, held at the Westin La Paloma Resort & Spa just outside Tucson, a conference-wide brainstorming session was held on the topic of how best to communicate to consumers the value of working with travel retailers.
Millar was the first to raise his hand. He kicked off the discussion by saying his staff members are commonly asked why travelers should use an agent, so they came up with a short "elevator speech" about the benefits. Their closing line: "Why would you not use an agent?"
This benefits list does not particularly break new ground -- and to get the full version, you might need to be taking an elevator to the observation deck of the Empire State Building -- but it is solid: access to expertise; worry-free travel; the convenience of one-stop shopping; on-the-road assistance when needed; and the ability to reserve a vacation with only a small deposit. All for the best available price.
The inherent problem with a "list" elevator speech is that because you've presumably just met the prospect and have only a short amount of time to make an impression, you don't really know which, if any, of the issues you're reciting is the one that is of greatest concern to that individual.
If cash flow is the issue, the possibility of reserving a vacation for a small deposit will catch their attention. If they are pressed for time, one-stop shopping will be the key. If they're anxious by nature, on-the-road assistance will draw them in. And if they're overwhelmed by choice, expert advice might well be the key selling point.
But I think there's an unspoken issue for consumers that simple benefits, even aggregated in a list, cannot adequately address when persuading them to use an agent. What is often overlooked is that for a large percentage of consumers, the thought of using a travel adviser actually adds fear of a risk that could outweigh all the benefits listed above: Should they bet on you or themselves to know what they truly want?
As researcher Peter Yesawich is fond of pointing out, about 80% of Americans believe they are of above-average intelligence -- statistically impossible, of course, but there you have your challenge.
Which brings us back to Millar and his journey from software salesman/entrepreneur to travel retailer. The answer to the question of why a consumer should bet on you can be found in the reason you went into travel retailing -- that is, why you bet on yourself in the first place.
For the Millars, it was the knowledge that, together, they had a deep understanding of the travel industry and technology, knew the fundamentals of business and sales, were self-aware travelers, had adequate resources and had put together a well-researched business plan.
"Your business should involve things you know and know how to do," Geoff told me after the conference.
Their knowledge and confidence runs very deep. It is why they could launch in the midst of a crisis, and it's clearly the fuel that drives their business.
The "features" that make using a travel counselor a smart choice might persuade someone sitting on the fence to engage your services. But in addition to those elevator-speech reasons to use an adviser, consumers must conclude, "I'm smart -- smart enough to engage someone even smarter than me."
Can you live up to that?
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.