One of the challenges in terms of rebuilding our economy is businesses have gotten so efficient that—when was the last time somebody went to a bank teller instead of using the ATM, or used a travel agent instead of just going online? A lot of jobs that used to be out there requiring people now have become automated. – President Barack Obama
President Obama’s statement of last week gave plenty of opportunity for travel agents on every side of the political spectrum to have something to say about his, or his speech writer’s, lack of knowledge of the travel industry. However, what the President’s statement actually revealed was the abysmally poor public relations job travel professionals have accomplished as an industry. We have failed to properly brand ourselves, failed to stake our claim to the economic importance of what travel agents do.
The President was only saying what each of us have heard a dozen times in the past: “Do travel agents still exist?” The answer may be yes, but you would never know it from our public footprint. We are the invisible industry.
Any outrage over the Presidential incident should be directed internally. The blame falls on each of us as individuals, because we keep acting like individuals instead of organizing a cooperative effort to educate the public.
I firmly believe that our associations and our travel media, TRO included, could do a better job at assisting local agents to clearly and articulately explain the role of a travel agent. Local chapters of ASTA, NACTA, OSSN and other ad-hoc groups of agents have terrific potential to place small, local ads that promote and explain the travel profession. There is no single activity that these organizations could undertake that would mean as much to the bottom line of each of you.
For that reason, I am repeating a message I have delivered in this column before.
Let’s take the energy so many found available to them when the President spoke and use it to energize a hundred local publicity campaigns. Below are my suggestions. At your next gathering of local agents, discuss the possibilities!
Competition is a good thing – it typically protects the consumer by keeping prices in line with value. Competition makes business people trend ever sharper in their development of services and practices. However, there is a place for “coopetition” as well. Coopetition occurs when competitors legally cooperate in very specific instances. Some of the best examples come in the form of attempts to educate the public on the nature of a particular industry’s services. As this column has argued in the past, the public is in real need of an education on the value of a travel agent.
Many travel consultants spend a great deal of time thinking about their competition, developing aggressive, competitive strategies. They view the agent down the street, the giant online web site or even the other agents in the office as their competitors.
The actual fact of the matter is, however, that the greatest competition most travel agents face is the lack of understanding of the thousands of potential clients who do not use a travel agent.
The real battle in the travel industry is to create a market: to get potential clients to use a traditional travel agent rather than doing it themselves or, worse yet, doing nothing.
By focusing on competition with other agencies, you ignore a large segment of the market. If you market aggressively and implicitly criticize the other agents, you in fact strengthen the subliminal message to some potential clients that perhaps no one can deliver adequate service. If you expressly criticize the “do-it- yourself” attitude, you implicitly criticize many potential clients and strengthen their resolve to book their own travel.
So what is an agent to do?
Firstly, forget aggressive competitive techniques that negatively criticize other agencies or online possibilities. Instead go positive: focus on professionalism, word of mouth and public relations. Make sure that your agency’s literature and promotional material speak to professionalism, to being a traveler’s advocate and to the resources at your disposal. Use professionals yourself to give your image a boost – a real logo and professional promotional collateral.
But just as importantly, consider starting a grassroots campaign in your own community that begins with collaborating with other agencies in your area. A centralized nationwide campaign to educate the public is a very expensive proposition, but smaller, localized efforts make for easier lifting. The cost of a small, local ad campaign split between a dozen or more agencies is affordable and smart business.
Naturally, anti-trust considerations indicate there are a few topics you and your fellow agents will not want to discuss. Don’t venture into discussion of fees, suppliers, GDS incentives or commissions or make agreements to consult each other on competitive matters. Your aim is to educate the public. You might consider inviting a local public relations firm to sit down with you to discuss the local possibilities.
Your real competition is inertia and ignorance and your local efforts can make a difference. But only if you act.