I’ve never really much cared for the fact Orbitz, Travelocity and Expedia managed to appropriate the term “travel agent” as in “online travel agent (OTA).” The implication is the entire role of a travel agent is purely transactional in nature and can as easily be performed by an impersonal database and some business logic as by a person. Truthfully, however, perhaps we should cede the designation of travel agent to the online automatons as the term “agent” no longer describes the dynamic between travel consultants and their clients.
This week, two participants in TRO’s Community related stories that every travel professional should read. I don’t want to recount the stories here as they were of a somewhat personal nature and shared in the confines of a peer community, but please do log in and read the threads there. In short, however, the heroic efforts of these professionals on behalf of their clients simply astonished me. These were travel consultants willing to go not only the extra mile, but the extra 5,000 miles to come to a client’s aid. It reminds me that while we might on occasion have trouble articulating the value of travel agents to the public, it all boils down to the one thing that Orbitz cannot be: human. In my book, these ladies were not acting as travel agents – they were travel angels.
A consumer might learn the price of a cruise from an OTA, but not the value. A family might plan their vacation to Cancun online, but without the assistance of a trained travel professional they will never know the true quality of the tour operator they are using, the opportunities they might be missing or the alternatives for consideration. The OTA will not customize recommendations for things to do, places to see and dining options on the basis of an understanding of the client. The OTA will not call up a concierge at the destination to work out a personal touch because, well, the OTA is not a person. Finally, and maybe most importantly, should something go wrong, should a problem arise, they will be at the mercy of a “customer service representative” rather than the advocacy of a travel consultant.
All of this to say the strongest competitive advantage you have as a travel professional is your humanity, your ability to empathize with the client. The people who work in your agency, the travel consultants who represent your brand, are your greatest assets. In all of your marketing efforts, let your personalities lead the way. Talk with your clients, not to them. Don’t try to sell them anything, help them buy instead. Empathize with them, share their excitement. Customize every aspect of the trip, personalize each effort you undertake with your own, inimitable brand. Educate your clients, explain value, show them what they need to know to travel well. Watch over their plans.
The loyalty of your customers begins not with clients, but with you. Your dedication to their needs, your empathy, will earn you the repeat business that a true travel professional both deserves and can expect. Place your clients at the center of your business, and that is exactly where they will stay.
You’ll know when you get it right. As one of the participants in the above discussion said “It’s no longer a profession, it is a way of life.”