How to stay on the cutting edge of travel industry developments to attract and retain clients. 

It was just one word. But when ASTA—the organization that was known for decades as the American Society of Travel Agents—changed the last part of its name from “Agents” to “Advisors” in August, it was a high-profile example of the need to stay current in today’s marketplace. Today’s most successful travel agents are the ones who consistently find ways to navigate the ever-changing business landscape and come out ahead of the competition.  

“It is a fine line between being on the leading edge and the bleeding edge of changes in the travel industry,” says Charlie Funk, chief executive officer at Just Cruisin’ Plus in Brentwood, Tennessee. “Every agency owner/manager has to stay abreast of what is going on, so that he or she can make an informed decision on what developments to adopt. To sit back and do nothing puts the hapless agency in an evolutionary cul-de-sac to await extinction.”

For Funk, simply keeping up is not good enough. “Being the first on the street with a new initiative is always better, because then our agency stands apart,” he says. 

Figuring out what those initiatives should be, however, requires clear vision and a strategic use of time and energy. 

Characteristics of a Leader
Some people are, by nature, more likely to be innovators in their field. But there are certain practices and strategies that any travel agent, manager or owner can adopt, to push their agency to the forefront. 

Roger E. Block, president of Travel Leaders Network, ticks off a list of the winning qualities that foster innovation and success. “Some of the key characteristics for travel agencies and advisors who are excelling in today’s marketplace include being on the cutting edge in targeted and personalized marketing, reaching current and prospective clients through the social media channels those clients utilize most frequently, specializing in niches, using technology advantageously and always having a clear differentiation,” he says. 

Of course, to move to the cutting edge, advisors must start from a solid position of business know-how. Best practice business skills can differentiate leading agencies from those that lag behind. Block notes that clear and responsive communication, as well as the flexibility to craft ideal itineraries, are all hallmarks of a competitive agent. 

Sound knowledge of the travel industry and its product offerings are another core requirement for staying ahead, according to Block. “Customers expect a leader in travel to be knowledgeable about their chosen destination,” he says. “A travel agent who excels can answer their questions and knows where to go to get the answers to the ones they don’t know.” 

To that end, education is key for any agency looking to stay ahead of its competitors. “The travel landscape is always changing,” Block explains, “and the most successful agents continue learning, not only about new products, but also business practices, technology and marketing strategies.”

Indeed, certification and educational programs play a critical role in an agency’s efforts to stay relevant and competitive—but they must be leveraged properly to be effective, according to Funk. “Certifications and training are important sales tools for our agents to build client confidence by demonstrating their knowledge of a destination or supplier,” he says. “But simply showing the certifications isn’t enough. Certifications as a stand-alone promotion to the consumer are, for the most part, meaningless. It is only in describing the benefit of that certification that the feature of that certification becomes a persuading tool.”

To remain competitive, Funk says that successful agents must never stop educating themselves, to “stay abreast of changes in market dynamics and demographics/psychographics in a plethora of different fields, not just travel. Failure to do so leads to failure to thrive. Read, read, read and read some more, from a dozen different resources.”

It Takes a Team
Travel agency engagement programs offer another way to stay ahead, since they can provide valuable opportunities for agents to team up with larger organizations and suppliers, to receive greater benefits for themselves and their clients. One of the most promising new developments in the marketplace today, according to Funk, is Apex, a program unveiled this year that allows eligible American Express Card Members to book valuable offers through travel agents, using the Travel Collection by Travel Leaders Group. 

“There has been no opportunity of the magnitude of Apex since the introduction of engagement programs,” he says. “Travel Leaders Network members are at once propelled to a new level of competitive capability that even the very largest agencies weren’t able to offer before. Even the smallest Travel Leaders Network member can now compete on par with very large agencies. It is fine to tout one’s ability to provide service, but to be able to offer amenities and perquisites previously only available to other large agencies and still provide outstanding service is a powerful combination.”

Block says an agency’s ability to evaluate new programs and decide which are appropriate for their goals can go a long way toward strengthening their positioning with the traveling public. “In our very competitive industry, where many consumers feel traditional travel agents are all alike, embracing new programs and ideas is certainly what can differentiate one set of agents from another, especially when you consider there is a new generation of agents and agency owners and operators entering the travel agency industry with new and fresh ideas,” he says. 

“Great agency owners see both what is happening today and what is coming down the pike tomorrow,” he continues, “taking into consideration not only competition with other traditional travel agents, but also the competition posed by OTAs and suppliers’ own channels.”

Tech Priorities
While the exciting potential of virtual technology and other high-tech tools may become must-haves in the very near future, forward-thinking agencies still shouldn’t cut corners when it comes to the technology that serve their needs today, according to Funk. “An owner/manager has to look at technology costs as just another cost of doing business,” says Funk. “It makes me crazy to read about/hear agency owners asking others for ‘the cheapest CRM—or whatever—that I can find to keep costs down.’”

“That foolish attitude runs the gamut, from phone service to Internet subscriptions, named Internet domains and email addresses,” Funk says. “Any agency with the name [email protected] fairly screams at prospects that ‘We are too small and too cheap for you to think we take being in the business even a little bit seriously.’ The only impression the prospect has of the agency is what they see and hear. Come across as too cheap or backwards to be part of the latest technological advances, and pay the price in potential client rejection.”

Thinking Outside the Box
To ensure future growth, successful travel agents should also always be thinking about new ways to serve clients, Block says. “Opportunities for agents to prove their value to their clients and stay ahead of the pack reside in looking beyond just selling the client a ticket, cruise or tour, and focusing on how much more can be done to earn the client’s appreciation,” he explains. 

Agents also need to make sure that clients are aware of all that a travel agency can do for them, he adds. “One of the ideas shared with me by a successful travel advisor is to provide every client a sort of ‘promise card’ at the beginning of their engagement that bullets out the value-adds, highlighting the personal level of service each client will receive,” he says. 

If you’re already going above and beyond for your clients, look for ways to share that information with your clients. “There are lots of unique things that our member advisors do for their clients that their clients don’t realize,” says Block. “By finding a way to tell the clients, they can then better appreciate the value of what the agent is doing on their behalf, which goes well beyond what an online service can provide.”

Still, Funk strikes a careful tone when keeping his clients informed of his agency’s ability to go above and beyond expectations. “We use social media to post information about things our agency does that demonstrate leadership, without saying ‘we are leaders,’ ” he says. “Because if we have to tell them we are leaders, we indeed are not.”

Funk’s agency also cements its reputation by maintaining a presence in the community. “We are heavily involved in industry activities well outside the bounds of things that would directly benefit our agency,” he says. “We are heavily involved in community activities, especially those related to education. We make sure that any and all press and public relations releases about us mentions our agency name.” 

Those kinds of consideration of language and branding are a key element in an agency’s toolbox for communicating its place in the world. To that end, Block applauds ASTA’s recent name change as an example of how to stay relevant. “ASTA’s move reflects a positioning that has already been occurring in the industry,” he says. “Agents have been getting more creative and, frankly, more accurate in defining who they are and what they do as specialists, experts, consultants, professionals. They are advisors to their clients, to help them plan the most appropriate vacation or business trip within their budgets and their dreams.”

Above all, staying on the cutting edge requires the right mindset, according to Funk. “Unless and until the travel advisor/planner understands and believes that he or she is a professional, and that he or she is tinkering with the single most precious, non-renewable, non-replaceable asset the client has—leisure time—will the professional come to understand that what he or she does is, in its own way, as vital and important as any other profession, be it physician, attorney or engineer.”

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