The travel agent forest has been in the process of being properly pruned. The deadwood is disappearing, and we're left with a corps of largely professional agents, somewhere in the neighborhood of 110,000 practitioners. Our little group of sellers is projected to generate over $17 billion in revenue by 2020, up from $15 billion in 2015.
Our industry has not grown very much in terms of revenue, but profits of travel agencies have been steadily rising in recent years.
Just think about it: Only 10 years ago, the average profit-to-sales ratio in the agency business was just about 6%. That figure doubled by 2015 based on figures compiled by Statistica. In a survey last year, 78% of all revenue consisted of commissions, but a surprising 22% were generated by service fees.
All of which is to say that, as sellers, we are becoming much more efficient and productive than our predecessors.
And part of the reason is that we realize that in this digital age of instant information, we need to be one step ahead of our clients in proprietary knowledge. I mean, let's face it: Our clients are walking around town with powerful minicomputers in their pockets, just one quick reach away.
I would argue that the quality of information we receive from suppliers has not been updated to provide the kinds of information the seller requires to maintain a human touch. So let's talk for a few minutes about some of the specific things sellers might like to know from various types of travel suppliers:Car rentals
The purchaser often sees this side of the industry as a scam. That is because there is no way to predict which company will have the best rates in any location, which makes loyalty difficult. But there is also those awful contracts, waivers and insurance. No one understands any of it.
What the seller needs:
- A plain-English document that explains all extra fees in nonlegalese. The company that wins over the client with language that is easy to understand will undermine the notion that renting a car is a process designed to confuse the purchaser.
- Provide a chart comparing the benefits of loyalty of your brand and your major competitors.
- Create a list of who to call if you need help for both seller and client. Every client should drive every rental vehicle with a contact list for reachable customer service help along the way.
Hoteliers insist on providing the same information they gave us at face-to-face meetings 20 years ago. We understand YouTube; we can go online to see your rooms. Don't make us sit through a video sales pitch. Don't insult our intelligence.
What the seller needs:
- Make certain that you give us a sense of neighborhood. If our clients walk out the front door and walk left or right, what will they see? Are there local shops or coffee bars where you have arranged introductions for our clients and a local taste or sample?
- Please make certain that we have the names and email addresses of your top executives, including the best people on the concierge desk. There is an excellent chance our clients will want to contact them directly.
- Read your own hotel inspection report before you meet with us to discuss the pros and cons of your review.
- Clearly explain how your property will create a guest stay that brings our agency to mind in some specific ways. How will you make them feel welcome on our behalf?
- Make sure that you leave us a list of some of your favorite room numbers in the most popular categories along with a reason or two why you like the room. Don't tell us "they're all equally nice."
- Automatically provide the seller with the names of the top restaurants within walking distance of your property. This is a question every guest asks.
- Make certain that the seller is aware which rooms in your property are specifically designated as "quiet rooms" as well as those that receive special anti-bacterial cleaning.
The mainstream cruise lines, particularly the big three, do not need me to suggest ways to enhance their relationship with travel sellers. They are extremely well-oiled sales and marketing machines; they have to be, given the number of beds they have to fill. So they have their deals, their fams, their contests and their overrides, and nearly everyone gets a sale call on a regular basis. But a step or two up from the mega-ships, communication is sometimes more haphazard. There are some things the upscale seller really wants to know, and it can be difficult getting the latest information.
What the seller needs:
- Provide updated information on dress and onboard smoking policies that is clear and accurate. Most of our clients are non-smokers who believe that smokers are suicidal mass murderers willing to poison the lungs of strangers at any opportunity. The cruise line that says "You will never have to breathe a smoker's fumes" will have a decided edge in marketing. Stated dress codes, sales team advice and brochure photos often are at odds. Every seller needs to know "where exactly can my clients dine if they do not want to dress in a coat and tie for dinner?"
- Personalize the cruising experience by making sure that the seller has access to the name of the assigned ship's captain and key staff members. This is information a good agent shares with clients.
- Explain who the seller needs to contact to get special dining reservations outside the system approved.
- Make sure there is a system in place to inform the seller that there are large groups booked on a sailing under consideration.
- If your line supports sellers who are known to rebate in the form of commission kickbacks or merchandise or gift certificates it is important to clearly explain that policy.
- Every supplier should understand production by agent rather than by company. It is the supplier's responsibility to recognize and reward those who actually sell their product vs. the corporate umbrella under which all corporate employees avoid the rain.
- Do everything possible to tighten the relationship with your onboard booking agent and the agent who originally booked the guests. Mutual respect and cooperation could result in far more bookings, which is to everyone's advantage. Make your on-board office a branch of the agent's office in some creative ways.
This is the segment of our industry that is most often overlooked by newspapers and the slick consumer travel magazines. The seller needs to be well armed to overcome media stereotypes of those who are well adjusted enough to travel with others. Let's call them "social travelers."
What the seller needs:
- Some way to recognize the traveler as a "valued guest of ____ Travel."
- Useful profile information on the assigned escort included with final documents.
- Specific notation in agency documents of the kinds of rooms reserved at each property for tour guests.
- Clear statement of tour policies regarding name tags, guides hoisting flags or umbrellas so the group will follow them as well as other distasteful practices.
- Information immediately provided when large family groups are booked into a departure.
- Really attractive and easy predeparture night programs at hotels whose quality reflects the quality of the tour being booked.
- A midtour update via email from the tour escort advising the consultant as to the client's welfare and apparent enjoyment of the trip (FIT companies do this; escorted tour firms do not).