Understand the Complexities to Tap into This Growth Segment.
As multiple forecasts predict continued growth in corporate travel, it’s no surprise that many travel agencies hitch their fortunes to this potentially profitable segment. But without the right technology, training and business strategy, ill-prepared agents may fall flat when trying to navigate the complex factors that affect how business travel is sold.
The segment’s appeal is easy to understand. Worldwide business travel is expected to increase 3.7 percent a year over the next decade, according to a recent report by the World Travel & Tourism Council and Travelport. In the United States alone, companies spent $424 billion on corporate travel in 2016, according to the Global Business Travel Association (GBTA). And 86 percent of business travel-focused travel agents expected bookings to remain high or grow even more this year, according to the 2017 Business Travel Trends Survey conducted by Travel Leaders Group.
All that means big money for agencies that understand how to serve the market.
Keys to Success
While business and leisure travel may share some common elements, they are decidedly not the same—which makes specialization crucial for agents who are serious about growth.
“The leisure traveler is buying a destination. The business traveler is buying the journey,” says Dave Hershberger, president of Travel Leaders/Prestige Travel in Cincinnati, Ohio. “The fun side is leisure travel, but corporate is where most companies, like mine, are going to make most of their money.”
Christy Prescott, CEO of Corporate Travel Planners in San Antonio, Texas, describes the subtle variations in approach that are necessary for success. “The largest difference between selling leisure and corporate are the nuances,” she says. “Within corporate travel, exceptional service is the differentiator between travel management companies. While corporate agents make sales based off of price and schedule…the customer’s real preference is high-touch, world-class service.”
As in any business, you have to spend money to make money—and investment in technology and productivity tools should be a priority, according to Jay Ellenby, president of Safe Harbors Business Travel in Bel Air, Maryland. “To be in the corporate travel marketplace, you really have to be loaded up to provide the technology features, such as online booking systems,” he explains. “You have to have office technology, you have to have mid-office systems and a program that supports that. And in addition to technology, you have to have the reporting that corporations expect, the data that they can use to make decisions.”
Prescott uses one word repeatedly when asked about her keys to success. “The most important tools today are automation, automation, automation,” she says. “Within business travel sales, it’s paramount to have a robust mid-office tool alongside the online booking tool, allowing travelers the freedom to make their own choices. What’s more, automation allows travel managers peace of mind, knowing their policies are enforced.”
Corporate travel policies might come from the client side, but they aren’t a one-way street. Data derived from an agency’s own technological tools can aid the development of a client’s policy, says Ellenby. “Our philosophy is that every policy, every company is different and we have to respect and support the travel policy initiatives of every company,” he says. “But we’re always working with our clients to maintain travel policies, because travel and issues are changing daily, and we want to make sure that our companies are updating them.”
Hershberger notes that sometimes his agency must take the lead in formulating a client’s travel policy. “Believe it or not, some companies we start with don’t have one,” he says. “But a complicated corporate travel policy doesn’t necessarily make it better. A well-written one, a well thought-out one and one that addresses your major concerns is what works best.”
That’s why policy is one of the first topics that Hershberger brings up with new clients. “One of the first things we ask is, ‘Do you have a corporate travel policy? And if they don’t, we say, ‘Let’s work on one together, and here are some suggestions for it.’ That’s how they’re going to see the real benefits of working with a travel management company. Travel management companies and travel policies go hand in hand. It’s a great way to enforce a policy and it’s a great way to build an effective one.”
Both Safe Harbors Business Travel and Travel Leaders/Prestige Travel take a similar approach to policies related to supplier partners: Respect for the client’s supplier relationships, coupled with readiness to offer help and ideas for improvement. “If a company has supplier partners, we honor them and support them,” Ellenby says. “And we always look at what can we do to tweak or help that relationship with a supplier and make it even more manageable for our client.”
Hershberger also notes that his agency’s own relationships with suppliers can work to a client’s advantage. “For us, it’s really a customer’s call,” he says. “We never lead with a particular supplier unless the client has no choices. But we have certain vendors we work with that offer special discounts to our clients.”
If a company is only as good as its staff, then providing appropriate training is imperative. Ellenby’s agency takes a multi-pronged approach to education. “We constantly do customer service training,” he says. “That’s the core of what we provide. We also do ad hoc training when necessary, when new products become available. We invest quite a bit of time and resources to make sure that our team is fully up to speed.”
Hershberger tailors his staff training to fit different clients, and he takes advantage of various educational opportunities. “A good consortium will have good travel agent tools in the training arena,” he says. “One phenomenal thing that Travel Leaders does a couple times each summer is to fly corporate agents someplace and show them behind the scenes at the airport, with the airline reservation system and at a car rental facility. I had an agent go last year and she just raved about it.”
The changing demographics of today’s business traveler is also a topic that deserves attention. The effect of Millennial travelers, for example, cannot be understated, according to Hershberger. “It’s the biggest growing segment in the corporate world,” he says. “The difference between Millennials and Boomers or Gen Xers is that they don’t want to talk to you. I hate to generalize; obviously there are exceptions. But Millennials want to text you, they want to email you, they want to use an online booking tool and they want to be contacted by mobile device much more than other generations do.”
Ellenby agrees that Millennials differ from older travelers in myriad ways. “Millennials have an interest in the sharing economy for rooms and rides,” he says. That makes it necessary for agencies to be current about new options and their effect on issues like corporate travel policies. “We have to stay on top of all the new entrants into the market.”
In addition, Prescott notes, “Millennials do not buy into their parents’ ‘never take a vacation day/work 80 hours a week’ mantra. They believe in bleeding their business and personal lives together and creating extended ‘bleisure’ trips.” That tendency can naturally create additional sales opportunities for travel agencies.
Strategies for Success
Selling corporate travel is an intricate endeavor. So is there an overarching philosophy that can lead an agency to success? “That’s the $64,000 question,” says Hershberger. “There is no one easy way to do this.”
Still, he has some suggestions. “A lot of agencies make the mistake of having an account manager/salesperson, and that just doesn’t work,” he says. “You have to have a full-time salesperson, and they have to be beating the bushes. We also have a full-time account manager. Both of those are absolute bare necessities to have a successful corporate travel program. It doesn’t do any good to have a great salesperson if then you don’t maintain that account.”
Also essential, according to Ellenby, is a dedication to customer service. “Sometimes you can take customer service for granted, and that’s a bad place to be,” he says. “We’d better be good at other things, but if we can’t provide good customer service training, then it doesn’t separate us from our competition.”
Prescott says that existing clients can be a valuable source of new opportunities. “Organic growth within an existing account can be built with additional services, such as small meetings, incentive travel, etc.,” she explains. “Find what you do best and build that platform.”
A positive attitude can also work wonders, adds Hershberger. “You just have to keep plugging at it,” he advises. “You need to stay with the times. You need to upgrade your technology. You need to have good staff. You need to treat your staff well so they treat your customers well. If you have one bad day, it doesn’t work. Every day you have to show up and deliver.”