Home-based agents are flourishing in the Canada as they are in the U.S., and for the same reasons, said Deanna Byrne, president of National Travel Associates, one of Canada’s largest independent agencies. NTA is just a year old and is made up entirely of home-based agents.
Since May 2011, Nova Scotia-based Byrne (thedestinationexperts.com) built her company to include more than 125 independent, home-based agents across Canada.
A member of U.S.-based Vacation.com, Byrne said she sees little difference in what’s fueling the growth and the business operations between host agencies and home-based agents in the two countries.
“It seems that home-based businesses are taking quite a jump, and it’s across the board in both countries,” Byrne said.
“Based on what I see here in Canada and the feedback from clients, people are looking for agents who can meet them on their schedule, maybe meet them at a coffee shop, send emails back and forth over weekends or discuss vacation plans on Skype. Technology has played a big part in the growth of home-based agents because it offers so much flexibility in communicating with clients.”
Technology has also enabled Byrne to expand her agency and offer her agents more services. One of the big success stories at National Travel Associates is its Facebook page for NTA agents only.
“We use this is a primary communication tool for our team. An agent can be up at 3 a.m. in another time zone and need a quote or help. It’s a big, private group of people sharing ideas in real time.”
National Travel Associates agents are a diverse group. Some are stay-at-home moms who squeeze in selling travel between picking up kids from school, others work at their travel business full time and some are new to the industry and selling travel part time. Many, she said, are retirees who love to travel and are embarking on second careers.
Byrne does not require any travel agency experience of her independent contractors, only a passion for travel and sales. Many of the new agents were real estate agents and already comfortable in sales, she said.
“We bring people in and have them go through our agent ‘boot camp’ and a series of training webinars that gives them a foundation for their business. We’ve tapped into V-com’s resources and a lot of the training that V-com provides.”
Byrne started the agency after working for several years as a traditional retail travel agent. “I was a little frustrated with the way things were happening and wanted to open my own agency,” she said.
Her first move was to open a traditional retail agency and hire full-time employees as agents. She put a notice in a local jobs website looking for people interested in joining the agency and was flooded with resumes — more than 750.
“That’s when I started thinking about starting a host agency for home-based agents. There are so many people out there who love to travel and have a background in sales. I sent every one of them a letter thanking them for their resume and started filtering through and talking to those who would be comfortable working from home and working on commission only.”
Byrne said that she has assembled a strong group with different backgrounds and skills. “We can handle everything from a simple car rental to a hiking trip in the Himalayas.”
The challenge is the one common to agency managers and owners: having agents close the sale.
“Our challenge is confidence. A lot of our agents are really good at researching information, prequalifying customers and finding the best possible vacation for them. Then they stop and don’t have the confidence to ask for the sale.”
Byrne strives to instill in agents the importance of customer service as the differentiator between using a traditional travel agent and booking online.
“When clients book with us we send them an e-ticket, but we also print out documents and sit down with them to discuss the trip. We present the trip itinerary in a nice folder and let them know our phone number and the agent’s personal phone number for any emergencies and questions. Then we write them handwritten thank-you cards.”