Word-of-mouth referrals from happy clients have always been key to travel agents' business. It has enabled many agents to build a loyal stable of clients and grow their business year after year.
However, in the era of social media, where "friends" and "followers" have new meaning, word of mouth is more important than ever.
Travel Weekly's Consumer Trends survey reveals that among booking channels consumers use -- direct, online agency, search site or big-box retailer -- a friend's recommendation is most important to travel agents. Thirty-seven percent of those who used a travel agent said a friend's recommendation was a reason for selecting the agent. In comparison, 9% of those who booked direct, 10% of those who used an OTA and 11% of those who used a search site to book travel said they chose those channels because of a friend's recommendation.
Among those who used an agent, having used the agent before and being satisfied (41%) was the only reason that polled higher.
Satisfaction with previous booking experiences was a key driver for most consumers when deciding how to book travel. The study found that 77% of travelers who booked travel directly with a supplier did so, at least in part, because they had used that method before and were satisfied. And 57% of people who used an OTA and 46% who used a search site said a previous satisfactory experience were a reason they chose that booking method.
Agents were the booking method of choice, meanwhile, among travelers who were looking for expert advice.
Some 12% of people who booked their trip through an agent cited expertise as a reason. Only 2% of respondents who booked direct, 5% who booked through an online agency or 4% who booked via search site named "expert advice" as a reason for selecting that method.
Travel agency executives say that social media has made providing good customer service imperative, because it's an efficient means of building business, given that clients' travel experiences can be spread quickly and among a larger population than ever.
"Information travels faster and faster," said Brian Hegarty, vice president of marketing and destinations at Travel Leaders. "And customers are more able to share experiences than ever before. Friends and family are more powerful than ever.
"When was the last time someone read a review of a movie? Now they find out what their friends think of a movie. That same concept applies to travel. When people see pictures on social media channels of their friends' vacations, there's the opportunity for more referral business."
Avoya Travel's senior vice president of sales, Scott Koepf, said there's also an obvious downside to social media: the ability to spread negative experiences and reviews faster.
"In today's world, you have to be so very careful," he said. "And at the very minimum you have to meet expectations. One negative will turn away business.
"My suggestion is not to have an esoteric answer when you're asked about your customer service. It's amazing how few agents can really define what they do.
"The challenge to be great is to enact great customer service and exceed expectations so that they will tell others."
Andi McClure-Mysza, co-president of California-based Montrose Travel, estimates that 70% of her agents' new business comes by word-of-mouth referrals -- "all from happy customers."
Social media is helping generate referrals, but it's difficult to measure just how much, she said.
"Anytime I go somewhere, I post photos on Facebook," she said. "I'm not saying, 'Call me,' but by association the fact that I'm traveling and posting photos is what may prompt someone to call. It keeps Montrose Travel top of mind."
McClure-Mysza added that social media impact is "tough to measure, and for most agencies it's a mystery. How much time should I spend on Facebook? All the advice coming out of the marketing world is to use social media, but we can't quantify it." (For more about social media habits of consumers, see "Social life: Consumers' new platforms of choice".)
Susan Ferrell, owner of North Carolina-based Travel Experts, said social media generates new business for agents, particularly those younger and new to the business, while older agents are relying more on word of mouth through face-to-face conversations.
By whatever means word-of-mouth referrals are generated, travel retailers agree that they are crucial.
"Agents have the same philosophy as any small business: They rely on repeat business," Ferrell said. "To do that, they make sure their clients' trips go as flawlessly as possible. It's their livelihood."
Travel Leaders, too, is recognizing the growing power of social media. It recently launched a consumer photo contest called #iTravelBetter for users of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to post their vacation photos and share how they "travel better" because of their agent.
Positive social media improves trust and credibility in the agency brand and for individual agents, but it's not easy, Hegarty said.
"Things are evolving fast, and there's lots of trendy stuff, so agents have to be careful and understand what [social media] means for their business," he said. "It's a matter of understanding how to use it."
Hegarty said Travel Leaders has determined that using friends and family "early in the travel life cycle" is most important.
"It's when people are just dreaming about where they want to go. That's when social media is a big influence," he said. "It has a place in attracting new business and retaining business, but it's not necessarily the catalyst."
Avoya's Koepf also recommends caution with using social media.
"You obviously want to take advantage of it," he said. "But be careful, because people very quickly learn to not pay attention to unsolicited posts and reviews.
"We do a lot of social media around the brand of Avoya, but when it comes to individual agents it's about being active so that when a customer has a good experience they share it. But not being too slick."
Koepf added: "The goal is to be really good at what you do and then word of mouth will drive your business. The very best agents are doing 100% from word of mouth. That's the ultimate."
Robert Silk contributed to this report.