In the wake of ASTA rebranding itself as the American Society of Travel Advisors last year, the industry has, for the most part, embraced the term "travel advisor" over "travel agent." 

But ASTA and the travel retail community are both finding they still have to use the term "travel agent" to drive online traffic.

Even so, most are encouraged by the shift from "agent" to "advisor," as they believe it will ultimately help focus consumers on the services they provide.

"I do think that for the sake of the industry, for there to be alignment and there to be a common term that's used among all the different levels of distribution is good," said Brian Hegarty, vice president of marketing at Travel Leaders Group. "If we're all using a common term [for] what we're doing, I think that only does good for the industry. ... It's one of those situations where if the tide rises, all of the boats are going to go up with it."

"Travel agent" remains a popular term with consumers. Google Trends data, which aggregates searches for particular terms and ranks them over time on a proportional scale of 0 to 100, with zero representing low search volume, illustrates its popularity. "Travel agent" has consistently ranked higher than "travel advisor" and other terms commonly used since 2004, the earliest year tracked by Google Trends.

For example, from March 3 to 9, "travel agent" ranked 100, while "travel advisor" ranked 11. The spelling "travel adviser" ranked 0, "travel consultant" ranked 3 and "travel professional" ranked 2.

"The internet hasn't caught up to our name change, and it's going to take time, and it's going to take a concentrated effort on our end," said Erika Richter, ASTA's director of communications.

In the meantime, many in the industry, ASTA included, are deploying a strategy that uses both terms -- "travel agent" and "travel advisor" -- in efforts to drive online traffic, including paid placement on Google searches and search engine optimization (SEO). That includes using both terms for paid searches and including content on websites that references both.

"I think that we have to understand that the consumer hasn't quite caught on yet, and that's just going to take time," Richter said. "We're working on it, but in the meantime, we have to address both terminologies ... but we're also really amplifying our search terminologies for 'travel advisor,' too, so it's kind of like a dual process. That's the reality of it."

The Society's push to make "travel advisor" the standard industry term got a boost earlier this year with an open letter from a number of players, including consortia and suppliers, encouraging the use of "travel advisor." 

There is clearly fragmentation within the agency community in how advisors describe themselves. Travel Weekly's 2018 Travel Industry Survey found that 34% of respondents describe themselves as a "travel consultant" while 24% use the term "travel agent," 20% use "travel specialist," 11% use "travel advisor," 6% use "travel counselor" and 4% use some other term.

Passport Online recently conducted a Facebook poll among a closed group of agents who use its social media posting services and found that 61.6% of respondents use "travel advisor," 25% use "travel consultant," 11.6% use "agent" and the rest use another term. 

Jeanne Colombo, Passport Online's vice president of strategic partnerships, said several commenters indicated that while they might prefer other terms, the public responds best to "travel agent."

That's also been the experience of Adam Lazarus, vice president of digital strategy at Tucson, Ariz.-based Bon Voyage Travel and Cruiseinsider.com.

"We're trying to transition the user to understand that advisor is the proper term," Lazarus said, "but the public largely still uses the term 'travel agent.' You lose on SEO if your website doesn't say 'agent.'"

On both Bon Voyage Travel's website and at Cruiseinsider.com, Lazarus said, the term "travel advisor" is used frequently, with others like "expert" and "consultant" employed occasionally. But "travel agent" still plays a big part in paid search and consistently gets better results in A-B testing than "travel advisor."

In many ways, the shift from "agent" to "advisor" comes down to an industry branding issue. 

Chris Davidson, executive vice president of insights and strategy at the travel marketing agency MMGY Global, expressed surprise that "advisor" had not already overtaken "agent" in the popular vernacular.

"Everything we see in our data indicates that travelers who use travel agents do so because of reasons that are more in line with what you would expect from an advisor versus a true agent," Davidson said.

MMGY's consumer research, he said, indicates that people who have used travel agents rely on them for destination knowledge and making complicated itineraries work.

"These are people who want to have the confidence that they're going to get the most out of their vacation, and that to me is a perfect role for an advisor," he said.

Later this spring, ASTA plans to relaunch a modernized Travelsense.org, its consumer-facing site, which includes resources for travelers and advisor profiles. Richter said she expects that to help educate consumers about the shift to the term "advisor," as ASTA is investing in both paid search and SEO to drive traffic to the site. Its consumer awareness budget was recently approved, Richter said, giving the Society a financial boost to drive traffic to Travelsense.org and ASTA.org, both of which feature the term "advisor" heavily.

"Hopefully, over time, we'll see an increase in those terminologies and 'travel advisor' ranking higher, but I also think that this is going to require a shift from all of the industry players," she said.

Most are already onboard with the switch, but some, like Avoya Travel, are going in a different direction. 

Sam McCully, Avoya's senior vice president of marketing, said the host agency still uses the term "travel agent" when marketing its hosting services to the travel trade. It also uses internal terms like "independent agency."

For consumers, Avoya tends to market with terms like "vacation planner" or "vacation expert," but the host is still experimenting with different terms. McCully said the term "travel advisor" feels "more transactional to me."

"It is subjective, but I think terms like 'expert,' 'planner' -- those, for us in our model, they exhibit a bit more value to the customer who's trying to make a decision of, 'Hey, who do I book with here?'" he said. "I think it works a little better with our messaging architecture."

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