Agent specialization is key

Clients might find a German-speaking travel agent who knows Austria's Christmas markets. Maybe an agent who can steer them to the best wildlife viewing in Botswana. Or one who works with chefs in advance to make sure a client's gluten-free dietary needs are met.

Agents hear it all the time: specialization. Today, for many, it's the foundation of their business.

"It's the reason why, once a consumer finds an agent that is a specialist, they have an extraordinary experience," said Scott Koepf, Avoya Travel's senior vice president of sales.

According to the Travel Weekly Consumer Trends survey, the vast majority of customers who have used an agent in the past 12 months believe their travel agent is a specialist (79%), a figure that has not changed drastically from prior surveys.

However, what has changed, according to industry executives, are agents themselves.

"In the old days, agents had the secret sauce: They were the ones who had the brochures and had the means to book," Koepf said.

He said the digital age and shift to home-based agents brought about specialization. "When travel agencies were only brick-and-mortar, you couldn't have an agency that only did Caribbean resorts," Koepf said. "It had to do everything because of its [local] marketing scope. The Internet allowed the ability to connect with customers based on a specific specialty. It opened up a new world to agents."

Travel Leaders is another major agency that made marketing specialties a priority. Earlier this year, it enhanced its Agent Profiler lead-generation tool, which matches consumers to Travel Leaders agents offering 2,555 specialties. Agents create multiple online profiles to promote their expertise, rather than the single generic bio they posted previously.

Roger Block, the president of the Travel Leaders Franchise Group, said Agent Profiler is a response to what clients want today. "With all the research that clients are doing online, they are expecting to speak to someone more knowledgeable than what can be found on the Web," he said. "You, the agent, had better be in the know. There's no more bluffing."

Travel Leaders started matching customers to agents based on specialties about seven years ago, but with enhancements that improved search capabilities, the program is used more than ever.

"Already so far this year, we have generated more leads than in all of 2014," Block said. "It's taken a lot of trial and error over the years, but by looking at new leads and types of transactions, we've been able to grow. It's been a major thrust. We look at our jobs [as being] to sell our agents, not products and not by price. We can never be low-cost producers. There's always going to be a less costly way to sell travel than on a consultant-type basis."

Brian Hegarty, Travel Leaders' vice president of marketing, said a successful tweak of the lead-generation program three years ago was to switch search capability from geographic location to specialization. That helped Agent Profile generate "high-quality leads" rather than price shoppers.

"Our research showed that agent qualifications are more important than location, so we changed the way we connected customers online," Hegarty said. "Now we've added multiple profiles centered on specialties and rich media that allows agents to share stories, pictures and customer testimonials."

Susan Ferrell, owner of Travel Experts, a North Carolina-based host agency and a Virtuoso member, has witnessed the evolution during her 35 years in business.

Being a specialist didn't exist 25 years ago, Ferrell said. "Back then, agents did it all. They did not pick a niche; they booked everything. If you were to ask them to nail down a specialty, they would have said it is the client relationship."

Ferrell sees it as a generational shift. "I have some very senior agents who still don't choose to specialize," she said. "For younger agents now coming up, it's very important."

Contributing to the growth of specialists is the rise in sophisticated consumers, many of whom are seeking experiences so over the top that only an agent with laser focus on a destination can help. The specialty-based, top-agent lists compiled by major travel magazines also boosted the focus on agent specialties, Ferrell said.

Avoya's LiveLeads program, which directs traffic to Avoya agents based on their areas of expertise, is central to its business model. Agents are encouraged to commit to only a few specialties to best serve clients, Koepf said.

"You'll get agents who say the more specialties the better, because they can get more leads. There's a concern that when you specialize in something you have to say 'no' to something else. But you can't have 78 specialties. The best agents within our system have a small number and do them amazingly well."

At Montrose Travel, a California-based agency with a large hosting subsidiary, promoting agents by specialization has not been a top priority, but that's changing, said Andi McClure-Mysza, company co-president.

"We're in the midst of a website redesign," she said. "When we relaunch, you'll see more about specialty."

The key, however, remains customer relationship and service, she said, adding that she sees Montrose's role being to strengthen those skills. "We teach our agents how to brand themselves and, for many, that includes specialties," she said. "We try to have the emphasis on the relationship with your customers."

She added: "We know our agents' specialties, and we route calls and email that way. But, ultimately, if an agent has done a good job with a cruise for a customer, our minds are not so strict that that agent can't continue to serve that customer for, say, Hawaii. It's about relationships rather than drawing a strict line in the sand."

Correction: This report has been updated to correct Scott Koepf's title: he is senior vice president of sales for Avoya.

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