Tour operators offered a range of advice for agents considering the current climate of the travel industry during the recent New York Times Travel Show at the Javits Center in New York.
During USTOA president Terry Dale's "State of the Industry Panel," which featured a number of executives, tour operators offered advice ranging from advocacy for clients to specialization.
For Scott Wiseman, president of Travel Impressions, transparency is one of the most important things for agents to focus on. Wiseman said it's an area where agents already have an edge.
"I think transparency takes form for you guys in knowledge and expertise, being able to sort through when things go a little wonky or there's confusion in the marketplace. And every single traveler is seeking transparency," he said. "The smart ones are using travel agents."
In a similar vein, Avanti Destinations President Harry Dalgaard said agents' biggest asset to focus on is advocacy on behalf of their clients.
"I think all travelers want a spokesperson, an advocate for them," alongside the destination knowledge and other assets agents bring to the table.
Guy Young, the Travel Corporation's global brand engagement officer, looked to the most successful agents he sees in the marketplace.
He said they share one characteristic: they specialize. Whether it's on specific products or destinations, they have a focus on something.
"The truth is, there's so many wonderful products out there, there's so many wonderful destinations, it is sometimes hard to be an expert in everything," he said.
Specialization is also key because of today's competitive environment, he added.
They key to standing out, according to Jennifer Tombaugh, Tauck's president, is to truly know clients.
"I know this sounds really obvious," she said, "but know your client and know your customer and what their motivation is for why they're traveling."
The service agents provide to their customers is key to their value, according to Zine Belhonchet, CEO and president of Rail Europe North America.
Belhonchet said someone on his team recently called agents "vacation savers," something that he found accurate. But he also said agents are key to their clients even when things aren't going wrong, because they help clients understand the message behind a complicated product.
Providing that service to clients is the most important thing agents can do, he said.
John Van Den Heuvel, president of Gogo Vacations, closed out the panel by offering agents some advice: While the industry will continue to change and evolve, whether in technology or destinations, agents should stay focused on why they decided to become agents in the first place.
"You came here for some reason," he said. "Tap into that and always use that as you go through all of the changes."