Jamie Biesiada
Jamie Biesiada

As the pandemic continues, more and more travel advisors are charging, or thinking about charging, fees for their professional services.

It's a trend that emerged fairly early on in the pandemic after advisors found themselves spending countless hours canceling, refunding and rebooking clients' trips, sometimes multiple times over as travel rules and restrictions evolved. If they weren't already charging fees (industry surveys indicated about half were), they started seriously thinking about it.

That trend continues. On Sept. 30, Host Agency Reviews (HAR) held a webinar on charging fees and released data from a new survey.

HAR releases a fee report each year, but in advance of the webinar it polled agents from Your Travel Center, Uniglobe Travel Center and Travel Quest. About 170 agents responded.

In total, 58% said they did not charge a fee pre-Covid. Of those agents, 60% said they were planning on starting to charge a fee in the next six months.

Covid-19 has been a catalyst, HAR founder Stephanie Lee said.

Lee featured three host agency executives on the webinar, where they talked about the ins and outs of fees: Connie Miller, vice president of business development, Your Travel Center; Bonnie Lee, president of Travel Quest Network; and Betsy Geiser, vice president of Uniglobe Travel Center. 

HAR's survey asked agents when they started charging fees. Around one-third of respondents said they started charging fees right away in their career, Stephanie Lee said.

The panelists agreed that newer agents generally have an easier time charging from the get-go. It's the more seasoned agents who have operated without fees that are more reluctant.

"You can teach a seasoned professional new tricks, but it takes them a while to get into the whole groove of it," Bonnie Lee said.

Geiser agreed. She has noticed a trend among seasoned agents: Those who were working when airlines cut commissions in the '90s tend not to have a problem charging fees for air tickets, but when it comes to other services on the leisure side, there is a roadblock in place.

"Change is difficult," Miller said. "It's the fear factor that really is the stumbling block here."

The advisors who took HAR's survey shared their hesitations in charging fees. First was scaring away clients.

Miller addressed that by saying a fee is a bigger deal in the advisor's mind than in the client's. The advisor provides a service, and so long as they explain their process and value, most clients feel comfortable paying a fee for that service.

Another hesitation: Remaining competitive, especially if other local agents or specialists don't charge fees.

Again, Geiser said, it is a matter of explaining the value of the service they provide -- and following up by delivering unbeatable service. She encouraged agents to keep talking about the value they bring to clients.

Agents who are nervous because they are new should counteract that fear with knowledge, Bonnie Lee said.

"I would say lack of experience has nothing to do with your knowledge, so educate yourself," she said. "Know those destinations. Know the properties. Know all of those things, and then when you do your presentation, when you are talking to your customer, they don't even know that you're new because you have so much knowledge already."

As far as processing fees, survey found that the majority of advisors use third-party processors, like Paypal and Venmo, to charge fees. Of those third-party processors, Paypal was the most popular, followed by Square, Stripe, TravelJoy, some other processor and Venmo.

The next most popular way of processing fees was through markups through supplier portals. Geiser warned against that, however, because if a client cancels, the markup goes away; she recommended charging a fee outside of a supplier portal.

The panelists agreed that advisors should verbally tell clients that they charge a fee right of the bat, but also put that information on a website or in writing via email.

Also on the webinar, Thomas Carpenter, owner of Huckleberry Travel and also an attorney, discussed the legalities around fees. I won't get into that here, but to hear his general advice, head to the recording of the webinar. His segment begins right around the 45-minute mark.

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