Travel Weekly Consumer Trends 2016

Introduction: The agent 'Advantage Gap' widens

What is your value proposition?

When hearing this question, your first thoughts likely turn to the various ways you enhance travel experiences for your clients, from the booking process through the trip itself. Your response might center around your expertise in a destination, or your knowledge about a niche such as scuba, family travel or arranging gastronomy tours. Or perhaps you specialize in a product category, such as cruising or all-inclusives.

Your value might lie in your ability to provide access to exclusive experiences, or to secure upgrades for your clients. Or you might think about the assistance that you provide when things don't go as planned.

Most travel advisers I've met have refined an elevator speech which, in a few sentences, sums up for a potential client why it makes sense to work with them.

But unless the agency is entirely fee-based and eschews commissions, most travel advisers must provide value in two directions. Not only do clients have many choices and channels to book travel, but suppliers have multiple choices and channels through which to sell their inventory.

Some agencies take it for granted that suppliers want to work with them, but as more focus is put on direct sales channels, it's increasingly important to be able to articulate your value proposition to them.

This year's Travel Weekly Consumer Travel survey presents a powerful case for the value of the travel agency channel. Each year when I receive the results of this annual survey, there are a few data points I look at first:

* How frequently do leisure clients of travel agents travel versus travelers who book through other channels?

* How does the average length of each leisure trip booked by agents compare with the length of trips booked through other channels?

* How much money do clients of agents spend per year on leisure travel versus other travelers? Per night?

As long as the agency channel leads in these areas, its value proposition is clear. I call the difference between the agency channel's average numbers and the average of other channels "the Advantage Gap."

So what happened to the Advantage Gap over the past 12 months?

On the first question, the number of leisure trips taken by clients of travel advisers, agencies' numbers soared. Over the past year, on average, agency clients took 5.1 trips vs. an average of 2.90 for other channels. This is a significant jump over last year, when agency clients took 4.31 trips compared with nonagency travelers' 3.0 trips.

For this data point, the Advantage Gap leaped 60%, from last year's average of 1.31 additional trips to 2.16 more.

The Advantage Gap also grew significantly as regards the average length of a leisure trip: Last year, the difference was still 5.71 to 5.6, or only .11 nights. But this year, the difference jumped up to 2.25 nights (7.75 nights vs. 5.59). This increase in the gap occurred despite a slight increase in the number of shorter trips being booked by advisers; last year, 31% of agent-booked trips were three nights or less, and this year, the number crept up to 33%.

On the final questions  how much is spent per year and per night  the Gap itself is very impressive, and it grew slightly greater. This year, leisure travelers using agents spent an average of $10,808 per year, versus $4,745 for those not using an agent, for an Advantage Gap of $6,063. Last year's gap was $5,904.

The per-night spending for leisure travel, which includes food, transportation and lodging, was again significantly higher than for trips made without the use of an agent: $435 vs. $263, for an Advantage Gap of $172 per diem (40%). This is an increase of $35, or 25%, over last year's gap ($413 vs. $275, or $138 per diem).

Supporting the Advantage Gap this year was other good news for the agency channel:

* Satisfaction with previous experience was the reason most often cited for choosing any booking channel, and for the first time, this answer was cited by more than 50% of agency users as the primary reason to book with an adviser (it rose from 41% to 51% this year).

* Satisfaction ratings in general improved notably for all booking channels in recent years, except for booking directly. Satisfaction with booking with travel agents has improved steadily, from 49% either somewhat or extremely satisfied in 2012 to 66% in 2016.

* Respondents ages 21 to 34 were more likely to have used a travel agent in the past 12 months than those in the older age groups.

The importance of the last of these as regards the collective value proposition of the agency channel cannot be stressed enough. When a supplier decides to invest in a channel, they are looking to the future.

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