The generation-communication gap

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Brendan PelsueRecently, I started working at a travel agency. My job is to help the agency find younger clients.

Some of my friends were skeptical about using a travel agent. They assumed trip planning didn't go beyond booking plane tickets. But then I started describing the kinds of trips this agency offered: gorilla trekking in Uganda, searching for snow leopards in India, mountain biking in Chile's Atacama Desert.

"Well," one friend said, "I guess I would want to talk to an expert if I were going to do something like that."

To me, his comments crystallized the disconnect between established agencies and younger travelers. We young folks don't really know what agents do, and agents don't know how to let us know they have an expertise we might be looking for.

Agents might believe there's little to gain from pursuing younger clients. There might not seem to be much commission potential in helping a college sophomore plan his summer backpacking trip.

Yet it might make sense to cultivate a clientele of young adults. The alternative is that the travel agency community will simply age and die with its current client base.

It seems that many agencies don't understand what message might attract young people. Further, if they do think they understand what to say, they're not sure how to deliver the message effectively. So the question becomes: What are young people like, and what do they want?

The essence of being young during this recession boils down to this: We are rich in time and adventuresome in spirit; we are relatively cash poor; we don't remember life before the Internet.

With these three things in mind, if I were looking to make my agency appeal to younger markets, I would ask myself a few basic questions.

1) How do I make my potential young clients feel like they're an active part of the process?

The success of sites like Kayak, Groupon and even BoltBus, a Boston-to-New York transit service that starts by pricing all tickets at $1 and then adjusts to reflect consumer demand, demonstrates that young online consumers love to feel like they are playing the market and need to feel some sort of active engagement when they're buying travel.

Sometimes, feeling engaged in a purchase can be as important as landing a bargain. As the BoltBus fills up, single tickets can wind up selling for more than the company's fixed-rate competitors charge. So let your clients feel active by starting a Twitter account that announces discounts but also exciting, full-price trips.

Before you know it, potential clients will make checking your site part of their daily routine.

2) How do I show off my expertise?

Whether it's adventure or luxury, all agencies have a specialization they do well. Find out where people with those same interests congregate online, and reach out to them.

It could be that shoppers at an outdoors "adventure" website (or store) aren't buying leopard-watching trips from you because they don't know that trips like that exist. Spread the word, and tell them why you're the person to help them with their booking.

3) How can I make technology work for me?

Starbucks has had great success with a site where frequent customers make suggestions about what the chain could do better (www.mystarbucksideas.com), a move that has both built brand loyalty and saved on focus-group research costs.

Starbucks' central insight is that people spend more time on sites where they can talk about things than on sites where they can buy things. So start a Facebook page for local travelers, and moderate a discussion on dream vacations.

Or, better yet, infiltrate a Facebook page for local sports fans and offer a package that enables people to follow their favorite team to three cities on three weekends. When you think about it, a social network is really a place where consumers market themselves to you.

There's an important ancillary issue: How to attract younger agents.

To me, efforts to attract younger agents and younger clients are one and the same. Young clients want to discuss travel with their peers, and young professionals are drawn to jobs where they can play a real role in shaping the future of the business. That kind of active role is rare in an entry-level position.

This industry has great things to offer young clients and professionals. You just have to reach them with the message that you do a whole lot more than book plane tickets.

Brendan Pelsue is a freelance writer who recently graduated from Brown University. His career pursuits include marketing and travel writing for newspapers, tour operators and guidebooks.


This column appeared in the June 7 issue of Travel Weekly.

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