Evaluating preferred supplier relationships.
When was the last time you took a good hard look at your preferred suppliers? The good news is that there’s no right answer—perhaps you do it quarterly or annually… or as your client needs change… or when you get an unexpected bit of downtime for planning. Those are all valid answers. But if your answer is “never,” it’s probably time to rethink that (lack of) strategy.
“I’m always evaluating my relationships with suppliers,” says Robin Little, President of Union Vacations and Wine Flights in Sacramento. “You have your favorites, of course, but I’m always looking at how good they are for me and even how good I am for them. I’ll chat with suppliers and ask what’s in store for the next six to 12 months in terms of new products and updates so I get a clear vision of what the future holds.”
John Diorio, Regional Director of Sales, West & Mountain Region for The Mark Travel Corporation, also recommends reviewing partnerships at least once a year and ideally more frequently. “Your customer base could be changing, the industry could be changing, the mix of agents working at an agency could be changing,” he points out. “You don’t want to find out a year later that you’ve missed opportunities because you had inquiries you couldn’t fulfill.”
To that end, Diorio highlights that travel agents must first evaluate their own business before looking at their preferred partnerships. “Sometimes it’s hard to find the time to stop and plan and organize, but it’s critical,” he says. “Agents need to look at their own data: Where are the leads coming from and do you have the right product to convert them? If you’re not converting leads to sales, why? What destinations are you selling most? This kind of data analysis plays a role in evaluating your current preferred suppliers and identifying any gaps in your offerings.”
Finding the Right Fit
In addition to determining if you need to augment your current preferred supplier relationships with new ones, this is also the time to take a look at if your current suppliers are still meeting your needs. It’s also a good opportunity to see if consolidation of suppliers makes sense.
“The opportunities with preferred suppliers are driven by volume,” says Diorio. “The more business you give any preferred supplier, the better the opportunities will be in terms of engagement with the team and potential compensation. Less can be more—if you focus on a few preferred suppliers, you can direct your sales more as well as leverage core components.”
Whether you’re looking for a new supplier or taking a new look at an existing supplier, here some are areas to explore:
- Pricing structure: Are the prices in line with what your clients expect and what you can reasonably sell? “Pricing is number-one because you have to be very competitive in the market—the competition is crazy out there,” says Suzy Mkhitarian, Manager at MS Travel and Tours in Burbank, California.
- Booking technology: Mkhitarian also emphasizes the importance of a booking engine that’s easy to navigate. “Time is money. If I’m spending more time than I should on trying to figure out how to book something, it throws off the rest of my day. A booking engine needs to be user-friendly and easy to follow.”
Little calls out technology and booking engines as the one factor that stands out as most important when evaluating preferred suppliers. “Technology/booking engines are vital to success for agents. Travel consumers want and expect great service from agents—so we have to have the tools and technology in place to make this happen.” He also looks at technology from a group booking perspective. “Who doesn’t make it as a preferred supplier? Those who don’t listen to what we say we need and update their technology as needed,” he says.
- Strong relationships: Little emphasizes that communication is crucial in all aspects of the supplier/travel agent relationship. “It’s key to work with companies that know what you do, what your business is, who your customers are—and really listen to our needs as agents,” he says.
Mkhitarian also puts strong relationships at the top of the “must” list. “What I look at most is our relationship with a company and how often the BDM comes to see us,” she says. “Do they make it clear they want to work with us? How concerned are they about our clients? Do they follow up to see if a group went well? Is the BDM available to help if we run into a problem? We want the kind of relationships where they will pick up the phone in the middle of the night to help us if we have an issue.”
- Core values: Strong relationships often go hand-in-hand with core values that are aligned. Diorio suggests stepping back and reviewing the supplier company on the whole. “How well do you really know your preferred suppliers?” he asks. “Do you know their core values? What do they stand for? Do they listen to you? Ask for your feedback? It’s crucial to have relationships that are a two-way street, with dialogue that leads to success on both sides.”
- Commissions and rewards: You work hard for your money, and it’s only natural to want to work with companies that acknowledge and reward that. Many suppliers have a base commission structure with additional perks or commission opportunities for higher sales volumes. Realistic evaluations of your current and potential business will help you assess your potential for actually earning those additional incentives or commission. But the supplier has a role as well. Will they work with you to help you increase your business? Provide training? Help you parse the data? Contribute to client engagement that could lead to additional sales, such as funding for events or co-op advertising?
- Training and education: In this fast-changing world, will your preferred supplier be a partner who helps you keep up with new initiatives, changing client desires, technology improvements and other aspects that continue to evolve? Little, for example, appreciates when suppliers “give us updates ahead of the consumers so we are prepared in advance.”
Mkhitarian points out the challenges of keeping up with hotel new-builds and renovations, as well as promotions. She especially likes when suppliers arrange dinners or meetings with hotel chains for updates and information. “The Mark Travel Corporation arranges small dinners with hotels and other travel agents so that we get to know the point of contact, promotions, the product, etc. You want to go because you can interact with other agents and learn about the products—my agents are better informed and they come back and can sell the product with confidence.”
Throughout all the touchpoints that
agents look for in assessing their preferred suppliers, one aspect underlies
all the others: two-way communication and the willingness to listen to their
needs. “When possible, I’d rather settle in with a supplier and work with them
instead of jumping ship,” says Little. “The ideal is suppliers who will listen
to what we need, and then grow with you and help you to grow with them—it’s all
about fostering relationships.”