Consumers are finding travel agents online more often than through word-of-mouth recommendations, which agents have long seen as the bread and butter of their businesses.
According to Travel Weekly's Consumer Travel survey, 47% of consumers said they found their agent online. A recommendation came in second, cited by 31% of respondents.
Newspaper, magazine and radio ads and the phone book were used by fewer than 10% combined of consumers to search for an agent.
The results did not surprise those who have been beefing up their online presence and putting resources behind search engine optimization (SEO). The success of online search is so high for Virtuoso that the luxury agent network no longer pays for online advertising, instead relying on public relations efforts and SEO to drive consumers to Virtuoso.com and ultimately individual Virtuoso agents, said David Kolner, Virtuoso's senior vice president of global member partnerships.
"You don't get to be a great website in Google overnight, but we've been online since the '90s, and we're known as being authoritative," he said.
Virtuoso offers its members the services of professional writers and photographers so its agents have the most powerful and effective online bios possible. Leads from Virtuoso's online searches result in a 17% to 18% close rate and an average sale of $8,000.
And the multifaceted role of the internet means that even if travelers find their agent online, a little personal recommendation may be involved.
"We also feature verified reviews, meaning that only people who have actually purchased from the agent can post a review," Kolner said. "We've found that those reviews are the No. 1 factor that people use in deciding to contact an agent."
Roger Block, CEO of Travel Leaders Group, said that several years ago, the company got a lukewarm response from a "retention marketing" program targeting existing customers and encouraging them to spread the word about their agent. But it has been a different story for Agent Profiler, a Travel Leaders search engine that has generated 85,000 leads since the start of 2015.
More significant than the number of leads generated is that the average booking from those leads is $4,700 per trip, and the close rate is 25%, compared to 4% to 5% from traditional advertising. Making sure that Agent Profiler lands high in searches and that Travel Leaders is recognized by Google as an authority on travel topics is a big focus, Block said.
"On both the marketing and technology side we have people whose sole job is to continually look at responses from customers and constantly tweak our SEO to learn which methodology or positioning is best for us," Block said.
Catherine Heeg, president of Customized Management Solutions, a travel industry consultancy specializing in social media marketing, tells agents in her training sessions that it's imperative their online content is "outstanding and their images and bios are remarkable."
"Online searches are extremely important, but more important is what consumers see when they get there," she said. "Agents should make sure that all of their online presence, including Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and their bios are as engaging as possible. Consumers are especially taken in by short, snappy videos, which are very important because they are more frequently shared than other posts on social media."
Traditional mom-and-pop travel agencies still rely on word-of-mouth referrals, but they also recognize the importance of a strong online presence, said Scott Pinheiro, president of Santa Cruz Travel of Santa Cruz, Calif., a second-generation travel agency owner whose clientele include many third- and fourth-generation customers.
"We've got such longevity in our community that word of mouth is huge," Pinheiro said. However, even when a family or friend makes an agent recommendation, he recognizes that consumers are likely to do a bit of online research about the agent or agency before making contact, which means his web content must be strong.
Two of Santa Cruz Travel's agents are handling the company's social media presence, often posting on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
"It's like a lot of people going out to dinner these days," Pinheiro said. "They may have heard from friends that a restaurant is good but they'll still go online and look at the Yelp reviews first and maybe even punch in the kind of food they are looking for. We know that people are going online to find a travel agent in the same way."