This is a great time to be a travel agent. No, it hasn’t been an easy year to sell leisure travel. I can relate. As a supplier who does not sell directly to the public, we are completely dependent on the success of retail travel agents. Your market conditions are our market conditions. Still, this is a great time to be in the travel business and I believe that opportunities abound to gain new customers and to make higher profits.
The travel industry has taken some incredible hits during the last seven years from 9/11, SARS, commission cuts, fuel surcharges and now a global economic crisis. But professional travel agents who survived all of this have become more knowledgeable and capable than ever. The recent wave of MLM ‘pseudo-agents’ has served to strengthen consumer awareness of what a professional travel agent really offers. This in turn has fueled the consumer’s desire to connect with a qualified agent who will bring expertise to their travel planning.
This is good news for travel agents: Your customers are coming back. Yes, consumers can book international air online – they’ve got hundreds of websites to choose from. But, people are overwhelmed with choices and information, too much for the average person to disseminate. Travelers understand that one botched detail on an international itinerary can ruin the entire event. They need a knowledgeable professional to guide them through the process and ensure that the trip goes well. This is the personal touch that dot-coms cannot provide.
In a recent trade journal, the following statistic caught my eye: ASTA announced that the average service fee per airline ticket was $36.78. “I wonder what our travel agent customers are making when they sell our private airfares”, I mused.
After a little number crunching I had it: $110.80. That is almost 3 times more profit per ticket. This is possible because consolidator private fares are not offered directly to the consumer and therefore allow significant markup potential, sometimes in the hundreds of dollars per ticket. I would encourage travel agents to take advantage of this opportunity for higher profits by partnering with a consolidator that you trust.
Yes, there is money to be made in selling travel. However, instead of focusing on the revenue potential, I would like to focus on the opportunity for service. Remember customer service? It is what truly differentiates a travel agent from the myriad of dot-coms who are vying for your customer’s valuable disposable income. You might find it helpful to look at five basic concepts that Centrav uses to define customer service to ourselves:
- Listen to your customer. Take time to ask them questions and then listen carefully. They will tell you what they want. Too many people in business try to understand their customer’s needs using anything from complex research tools to a crystal ball. A better method is to just ask them.
- Serve your customer. Whatever you promise to do for them; do it to the hilt. There is no room for a half-hearted effort here.
- Get feedback. Now that they have used your services, ask your customers, “What are we doing right or wrong?” If you make a mistake, make it right. There is a reasonable amount you can do to cover an error on your part. If it’s not reparable or if it’s not really your fault, apologize and offer an explanation.
- Remember that their problem is your problem. Never let them feel like you are not fully engaged with them in trying to resolve a difficult situation.
- Remember: They can get the product online. What they can’t get online is someone who cares.
Customer service is not rocket science, but when these simple concepts are applied diligently they are very powerful. I encourage you to focus on serving people. I think that a desire to serve is what brought most of us into the travel business to begin with. We liked the idea of helping people with their travel plans without charging a fee while the airlines paid us in commissions. The commissions are gone, but the heart of our business hasn’t changed. We are still here to help people. The difference is that now we charge a service fee instead of bundling it into an airfare and getting a commission check that oftentimes didn’t reflect the work we did anyway. A hidden bonus: Serving people will put the fun back into your job. It is amazing how a setting a goal of serving people brings us to a higher level.
Greg Rholl is Vice President of Distribution and Pricing for Centrav, an international airline consolidator based in Burnsville, Minnesota. With a background in business and computer software, Greg began at Centrav 17 years ago as a Reservationist and subsequently has become involved in marketing and fare distribution through the internet via Centrav’s acclaimed website www.centrav.com. Centrav.com offers fast online booking of both private net fares and commissionable published fares on 30+ airlines to destinations all over the world. Domestic tickets and discounted hotels can also be booked on this website that has gained enormous popularity among travel agents for its ease-of-use and sophisticated tools.