As professional travel agents, we arrange trips of all types for clients on a daily basis. We all have a passion for travel; otherwise we wouldn’t be in this business. Yet exactly how essential is travel experience to travel agents? I think there are a number of perspectives to consider.
All agents are familiar with what I like to call “travel essentials.” We all know that air bookings are made the same way regardless of the cities involved, and that hotel nights can easily be booked anywhere in the world. Obviously our clients have to get to their destination somehow and need a place to stay once they arrive. However, once we look past the how-to of booking these essential elements of travel, at some point either the agent’s experience or destination knowledge inevitably comes into play.
For example, a client says he wants to be routed through New York en route to his final destination. My gut instinct is to ask “Do you have a preference for JFK or LaGuardia?” In this instance, knowledge and experience as an agent would most likely suffice. What about routes or destinations that are either less popular or that you are unfamiliar with? When the same client asks to book land-based arrangements, will you have the knowledge to be able to adequately service that client’s inquiry?
Some might be tempted to answer “I’m a cruise specialist; I don’t book land,” or “I’m a destination specialist, so I don’t accept inquiries outside of my specialization.” Sorry, but those answers don’t work in my book. No matter what type of travel or destination you specialize in, you still have to possess a certain amount of destination knowledge. Without it, what would make travel agents unique and valuable? We aren’t simply brokers of good travel deals; that’s what people use Internet mega sites for. And we aren’t meant to be order takers either. The Internet can do that, and so can anyone who is trained to do the task. Knowledge and experience are what sets travel agents apart.
It is definitely possible for agents to do very well without having traveled much. Corporate travel agents, in many cases, have a captive audience of clients who are required by the companies they are employed with to use their services. But does having a captive audience mean that these agents never have a need for destination knowledge? No. When the need arises, the agent has to seek out the destination knowledge he or she lacks, no matter what the source.
However, would these agents have an easier time and be more effective at servicing client inquiries for destinations that they are familiar with? And would the client’s experience be enhanced by the agents’ first-hand travel experience? I would say so.
Now consider agents who pride themselves in being destination specialists. We can all become “specialists” through industry training provided in one form or another, but what makes a true destination specialist? As a traveler, I would have confidence in a destination specialist who is able to tell me the best ways to get around in an unfamiliar place, if there’s anything going on during my stay that would either enhance my visit (festivals, holidays, special events) or detract from it (ongoing construction, poorly located hotels, closed attractions, an impending city-wide strike), and what the best local eateries and attractions are. How do we expect to learn these kinds of things from a training program? How does anyone get to know a destination to that extent without having traveled there?
Last but certainly not least, consider cruise specialist agents. These agents might direct clients to the cruise line’s list of available shore excursions and ask them to review the port information and suggested packing list online. But when the client asks, “Why should I cruise to Alaska? I like to fly to my destination and explore on my own” what would someone lacking destination knowledge say? Extolling the benefits of cruising is one thing, but whether it works or not, how effective can the agent be at telling the clients not only what there is to see and do in Alaska, but how to navigate their way around to explore before or after their cruise, where to find the best seafood in port, or what the most ideal shore excursions are given their interests? Of course no agent would recommend dog sledding in the Yukon to someone who doesn’t like dogs, but an agent who has traveled to Alaska would be able to offer much more detailed information to the client.
First-hand travel experience affords agents invaluable insights that give them credibility when speaking about a destination or a particular travel experience. Furthermore, it serves to enhance our clients’ experience with us from the customer service standpoint. For these reasons I feel that travel experience is essential to travel agents, although the scope and type of travel experience needed depends upon our own individual business models and goals.
What do you think? Can you be an armchair travel professional?
Adrienne Mitra is the owner of Celebrations International Travel, Inc., an independent agency focused on serving a number of niche markets, including culinary travel, cruises, tours, and group travel. Phone: (480) 272-6020