When we opened our travel firm three decades ago, I had a sense of what I would be spending my time doing. But I didn't have the specifics, other than that I would be sending people where they told me they wanted to go.
All the advertising by suppliers, all the efforts of the world's tourist boards, and all the writings of the popular travel scribes would bring travelers through our doors asking us to send them where they wanted to go.
I had spent more than a decade working the supplier side for a major cruise line. I had visited a great many of the better agencies in the country, and I tried to prepare them to deal with the clients our line's ads would be driving through their doors.
But it turned out I was wrong in many of my assumptions. I was mostly wrong about the notion that a travel adviser is an order-taker. Headsets are order-takers; consultants, at least the good ones, learn to listen, evaluate and then advise. It didn't matter so much that clients thought they knew where they wanted to go. We could, if we thought it was the right thing to do, easily persuade them to choose a different product or destination. We could best serve our clients, we quickly learned, by giving them what they really needed, not what they immediately asked for because they had been impressed with a pretty beach scene or a nice looking ship.
I had worked for a cruise line that largely saw travel agents as order-takers, and we had the data to back that up. More than 80% of our cruise guests filled out a guest evaluation form before they left the ship. One of the key questions was a multiple choice that asked the guest to explain how they cane to be recommended to our product. "Family and friends" was one option, "TV" another, along with "newspaper ads" and "my own research." Then there was "recommended by my travel agent." But only about 15% of respondents checked that box, so our corporate mindset was that our marketing was driving 85% of our bookings.
It wasn't until many years later that I was able to put this into perspective. When we opened our practice, we immediately started seeing things I had never seen as a supplier. We were influencing final travel decisions to a much greater extent than we had ever imagined we would.
So we started keeping a tally. At the end of the first year after we started keeping records, we found that we had controlled the travel destination process a shocking 91% of the time.
The majority of our clients were confused by the ads they were seeing. They could not believe that "free air" was really free or that companies that were really offering 50% off their rates were completely sane. They saw products they liked, but was there something better? They wanted honest, professional reviews of hotels but didn't know where to find them.
But mostly what they wanted was someone who really cared more about the outcome of their vacation than they did about a quick deposit.
We found that 91% of the time even those who knew where they wanted to go were open to better suggestions. They were seeking a sounding board. They were seeking unbiased, professional advice.
Now that's always been a tall order for an industry that faces major challenges finding and training individuals with the capability of being the earth's sales representatives. It is a tall order for an industry that is still characterized by the classic dichotomy between marketing and sales. The most dismissive attitude toward sales professionals will usually be found lurking somewhere over in the marketing department. And given that so much statistical evidence suggests that marketing generates sales, I fully understand that.
The disconnect between marketing and sales has gotten even wider in recent years as marketing departments have been able to justify their expenditures in social media and truly targeted marketing while improving the percentage of direct bookings their efforts generate.
But I've come to view this yin-yang argument with a somewhat different perspective since we started keeping tallies of how the ultimate travel destination/product decisions were being made at our firm.
One of the most interesting conversations I've had on this subject took place with a client who is an expert on statistical analysis, particularly as it relates to personal decision making. We had a long conversation, this professor and I, about how decisions about travel are really made. The conversation was initiated by the fact that I would not send him where he wanted to go because it was all wrong for him.
I told him about my discovery that my old friends in marketing at the cruise line were way off in their assumptions that travel agents were influencing the travel decision in only a small percentage of cases.
He patiently explained that this is a phenomenon that is common in the literature of psychology. It is sometimes referred to as "self-transference," the idea that credit for a decision, although made or influenced by others, will be claimed as one's own, as in, "No one helped me reach this decision -- I did it myself." He said it was not at all surprising that only a small portion of passengers, hotel guests or tour members would check a box giving a third party such as a travel professional credit for the final trip decision.
There are, of course, many companies at which marketing and sales work hand in hand and old assumptions have been overturned. Everyone is, to a certain extent, on board with technology. Everyone understands Big Data and targeted marketing. Everyone is onboard with the fact that you've got about 10 seconds to engage a smartphone user before you're travel toast.
But I still think that there are a great many marketing departments that really don't get how it really works down at the consultant level.
Let me explain it this way: My average client spends more money with me than he or she will spend with an attorney, a CPA or the family doctor in a calendar year. We work in much the same way. The doctor does not allow the patient to determine outcome, nor do any of the other professionals with whom our clients come in regular contact.
We are their travel advisers, their travel financial advisers, and, yes, we play a role in recommending the option that is most suitable to their current state of health. Chances are, we know where they've been in the past, and many of us are starting to formulate five-year plans for our clients to prioritize future travel.
We're also the ones (though it pains me to admit this) who have to explain why marketing and ads can be misleading, why the promised dream could, in reality, turn out to be a nightmare.
Despite all the information available to our clients, many marketers in travel continue to insult their intelligence with silly offers and come-on pricing. The assumption is that the client is too stupid to figure out a phony deal from a real deal. It falls to the travel consultant to explain where marketing is exaggerating or hyping. The consultant has to be the travel truth teller. And if you are, if you relate to your clients and build that level of trust, you will influence the travel-making decision 91% of the time. Travel sellers understand this. I only wish more of our friends in marketing did.