Agents irked by Four Seasons' direct-booking social media ads

The Four Seasons Hotel London at Ten Trinity Square.
The Four Seasons Hotel London at Ten Trinity Square.

The agency community is agitated by a social media campaign from Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts that has been appearing on Facebook, touting perks when booking directly with the company. 

While travel advisors say the campaign diminishes the value of their services in the eyes of consumers, Four Seasons maintains it is committed to the agent channel but is seeking to reach consumers in a variety of channels; it does not believe its Facebook campaign targets travel advisors' existing clients.

Some of the ads include language such as "complimentary perks when you book with us."

Keith Waldon, founder and director of Austin, Texas-based Departure Lounge, wrote in an email, "Obviously, travel advisors and travel agency owners are not happy with this campaign, as it is misleading our clients to believe they can receive more/better perks if they book directly with Four Seasons. It feels like a slap in the face to those of us who have strongly worked to support Four Seasons."

Ben Trodd, Four Seasons' senior vice president of global sales, said in a statement that the company remains committed to travel advisors and agencies, calling them valued and "important partners."

"We continue to look for ways to innovate, respond to travel trends and connect with travelers through a variety of channels and partners," Trodd said. "This holistic approach ensures that we are providing guests with an enhanced booking experience that is seamless, convenient and ultimately provides the best value."

Trodd said the "exclusive offer campaign" launched in 2017 (though advisors report seeing it appearing with greater frequency in the past several weeks). He said Four Seasons consulted with travel partners on it and most were supportive.

"Very few have raised concerns, and our commitment to rate parity across booking channels remains," he said.

Trodd also said many of the company's guests book through advisors, who "add significant value. In this campaign, we are not specifically targeting travel industry clients and would not explicitly intervene in these important client relationships."

Other hotel companies have embarked on similar direct-booking campaigns in recent years.

A screenshot of one of Four Seasons' social media ads touting perks when booking direct.
A screenshot of one of Four Seasons' social media ads touting perks when booking direct.

ASTA's Mark Meader, senior vice president of industry affairs and education, said ASTA continues to address the issue with hotel companies and remains publicly vocal on the issue. The Society's efforts have resulted in actions such as the removal of certain ads. He specifically called out Hyatt, Hilton and Marriott as companies that have taken some kind of action, "each to a varying degree."

With regard to Four Seasons, he said, "According to feedback from some ASTA members, Four Seasons has not historically worked as diligently as others to tout and take advantage of the value the travel advisor plays in the hotel-booking process -- whether leisure or corporate focused, consortia or independents."

Consortia advocate for including advisors in advertising campaigns.

"Bypassing [agents] is penny-wise and pound-foolish," said Nicole Mazza, chief marketing officer for the Affluent Traveler Collection. "Travel advisors know their clients best and have always delivered the highest-yielding customers. Suppliers that convince consumers to purchase on price do so at their own peril. Certainly, there is choice in the marketplace, but we believe relationships matter."

Karen Goldberg, Virtuoso's managing director of hotels and resorts, said that Virtuoso is Four Seasons' exclusive agency network. In a statement, she wrote, "While we understand the motives for direct-booking campaigns, we strongly advocate for the inclusion of travel agencies as a booking option."

She cited statistics from Virtuoso and YouGov showing that luxury travelers who book through advisors spend 42% more on travel than luxury travelers in general, illustrating the value of promoting the agency channel.

Waldon said Four Seasons' campaign was a surprise and an unwelcome one, as clients are seeing it "daily" on Facebook. As a result, he told the company it is no longer welcome at client events at Departure Lounge nor at his annual advisor retreat.

"It is a really bad move by Four Seasons," he said, "especially as their direct competitors are embracing the agency distribution channel more strongly with preferred agency programs and marketing support."

Nancy Cutter, owner of Court Travel in Charlotte, said she books a "substantial amount" of Four Seasons, and the latest direct-booking campaign could change that in the future. "Why should we support a brand if they're not really looking to support us?"

Harris Travel Service in South Miami books a "fair amount" of Four Seasons, said vice president Andrew Harris. While he said he won't stop booking Four Seasons upon client request, he might steer them to other properties. 

"The cruise lines will say contact ABC Cruise Line or your travel advisor," he said. "Those little words mean a huge difference to the travel [advisor] community. When you see a partner that's been such a strong partner for so long turn around and say, 'Book direct,' do you want to keep supporting that partner?"

Christina Jelski contributed to this report.


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