Balancing Cost and Convenience.
The volume of choices available to international air travelers these days puts travel agents front and center as the voice of knowledge and expertise. To be sure, both leisure and business travelers are aware of price as a factor in their decisions, but that’s only one of a myriad of elements that comes into play when travelers choose their transportation options. Convenience of flights and airports, scheduling, comfort, loyalty programs and customized perks offered by individual airlines are all part of the decision-making process.
Knowledgeable travel agents are uniquely positioned to help travelers make those determinations—but only if they have an understanding not just of the options available, but also of the individual traveler’s motivations when booking.
While leisure travelers have the discretion to make decisions based on their individual travel priorities, business travelers may be constrained by the dictates of a corporate travel policy. In both cases, though, knowledge is power—and the obvious first choice might not be the best choice when viewed in the light of balance between cost, comfort and convenience.
The travel agent’s knowledge—not just of scheduling and price, but aspects such as loyalty programs, ease of connections, access of airline lounges, individual airline amenities and more—can make the difference between well-informed decisions that lead to a pleasant, productive flight and those that leave travelers with less desirable memories bookending their travel experiences.
All About Comfort
Studies show that comfortable flying experiences can boost the likelihood of a successful business trip, and travelers and agents must find the right balance of cost and comfort. This can be especially crucial for frequent business travelers, who must conduct business once they land, particularly on long-haul flights.
A traveler exhausted after a long, uncomfortable flight likely won’t perform at his or her best, and may well not be able to realize the full business potential of their trip. That’s the underpinning of the concept of “traveler friction,” the notion that frequent travel, if not managed with the traveler’s comfort in mind, can have hidden business costs due to lack of traveler effectiveness.
The concept in recent years has been studied and promoted by Scott Gillespie, managing partner of travel management consultancy tClara. Gillespie’s firm in 2016 partnered with the Airlines Reporting Corp. and American Express Global Business Travel to survey 757 frequent travelers, and found that those who feel “burned out” or nearly so often cited problems with the quality of their travel experiences—not necessarily the quantity of travel—as a key driver of that feeling.
A 2017 update to that survey found that frequent travelers in organizations that prioritized keeping travel costs low were less likely to consider their business trips “effective” than travelers with organizations that stressed traveler productivity and satisfaction.
He points out that agents trying to help business travelers avoid that friction on international flights first must assess whether the client’s travel program prioritizes cost or traveler satisfaction. With cost-focused programs, the challenges for the agent are clearly greater, requiring walking a tightrope between what the traveler needs and wants and what the company is willing to pay for.
“If agents are working with a road warrior who’s in a cost-focused travel program, the four things that are going to matter most to that road warrior are nonstop flights; premium economy seating; if they’re going long haul, they’re going to want business class; and they’re almost always going to want a comfortable and convenient hotel,” Gillespie says. In short, he says, “They’re asking for travel that lets them be productive.”
While international leisure travelers have more discretion to make their own decisions, the tradeoffs between time, money, convenience and comfort also come into play as they look to maximize their vacation time and start their trip off on the right foot.
The Full Experience
In addition to considerations such as distance to the airport, flight schedules, checked baggage options, seat choices and other common factors that travelers consider, travel agents can help travelers make informed decisions with a look at other available amenities that can affect the overall travel experiences. Consider, for example:
- Class of service: While travelers are aware that a major perk of business class, for example, is enhanced seating options, travel agents can also educate clients about additional amenities that can enhance the overall traveler experience. Business class amenities vary among airlines, so ensure an apples-to-apples comparison by looking at features such as pitch and recline of seats, the availability of lie-flat beds, priority security clearances and other onboard amenities. More recently, some airlines have introduced Premium Economy Class options, a middle ground between traditional economy class and business class. Features vary here, too, but typically include additional legroom and might include more seat recline, special onboard meals plus premium services, such as earlier zone boarding and faster bag arrival, and other onboard amenities not typically found in economy class.
- Stopover programs: Stopovers can serve as a method of reducing business traveler friction and enhancing a leisure trip. A business traveler with the opportunity to add a stop in a desirable location during an international trip for a few days of relaxation and sightseeing may well consider a stopover a perk. So, too, might a leisure traveler, who could choose to match a visit in one international destination with a few days in another destination on the way—such a stop can add a complementary cultural aspect or simply provide a break from the rigors of long-haul travel.
- Airport lounges: Such stopovers needn’t be that long, either, to be considered a perk by some business and leisure travelers. In fact, travelers might not even need to leave the airport to enjoy a break in their travel. Airport lounges offer a respite from crowds of passengers as well as the opportunity to charge a phone, get a drink, stretch their legs and decompress between legs of a trip.
“If agents have any knowledge of where the airport lounges are, that can be a nice little side benefit to mention,” tClara’s Gillespie notes. Since in the past, airport lounges were often the exclusive domain of high-volume passengers who belong to loyalty programs, it’s important to ensure that clients know that some are now more accessible. Travelers can enjoy the amenities of Air Canada’s Maple Leaf lounges, for example, for free or for a nominal fee in a variety of ways, such as being a member of the Maple Leaf Club, holders of certain credit cards, those who have purchased specific classes of tickets, including some economy fares, and participants in a variety of loyalty programs.
- Loyalty programs: In addition to access to lounges, loyalty programs can bring a variety of other benefits to the flying experience beyond the accrual of points, especially the ability to upgrade seats, priority seating and access to expedited security and immigration services at airports.