As I muddle through the industry we all know and love, I have the opportunity to speak with colleagues, clients, and people just curious about my survival in an industry that seems to be (if you believe the pundits) dying. Many ask me if I am worried about the ability of the masses being able to do what was relegated to me (solely) a few years ago. They have undoubtedly noticed (as I have) the increasing availability and choice of travel choices today. They will say things to me such as “have you noticed a drop in business now that so many people can be their own travel agent?” Or “do you find it hard to make money? I feel like everyone buys their travel online today.”
These are very good questions, and the people asking them are right to worry about my livelihood. In the last few years, we have a seen an explosion in travel, hastened by several things, among them a decrease in cost and an increase in technology. In 1996, there was no Orbitz, Priceline, or Expedia. I am not sure, but if memory serves me, fewer than 20% of agencies even had a web presence at that time. Now, travel can be had at Costco, at your desk, in your bed, on your phone, and (most disturbing to me) directly from the supplier. Social media has made sharing experiences and critiques seamless and frictionless. Today, seemingly all it takes to be a “travel agent” is a love for travel and a small payment to someone willing to toss up a website and split a commission with you. Boom—just add water!
Legitimate agents—both old and crusties and the newbies–have certainly noticed this trend, and many don’t like it. Professional forums exist for the true agents to network and to be honest, there is a lot of chiding going on about these faux agents. Certainly I have had my share of laughs as I documented the rise and fall of one of the larger MLM companies. But after all is said and done, as professionals we are all faced with the same pressing question-
How can we (continue) to be a travel agents, when everyone is a travel agent?
Or, more specifically…
How can we continue (or begin) to make money in an industry that is ever-increasingly available to just about anyone?
The answer is not to invest in a hopped up online booking engine,
- or to stay on top of the latest technological innovations,
- or get more Twitter followers,
- or to have the largest fanpage on Facebook,
- or to enroll in every supplier training session and attend every trade show.
There will always be someone with technology than you.
There will always be someone with a bigger reach and influence than you.
There will always be someone who has been selling travel longer and has greater skill.
Focusing on being the best in any one of these categories may help in the short term, but ultimately it won’t get your business anywhere.
The answer is simple really. (WARNING: Strong Language Alert) You are going to have to care your ass off about your customers. You are going to have to create and provide a unique experience and a truly amazing service. And this experience must be better and offer more value than anyone else! THAT should be your goal!
For every agent, no matter the expertise level, there is tons of competition – the market is totally flooded. I can buy a Sandals vacation package at my local travel agency, through a discount shopping club, through one of the large OTAs, direct from Sandals or one of their wholesalers, a MLM company, or even through an affiliate link at the local bait and tackle shop.
The only thing left to make your clients decide to choose you over the other options is the experience you create for them through your own personal brand.
Technology and product knowledge are still very important pieces of the puzzle, but they’re not enough anymore. The travel industry is no longer a trade plied only by legitimate agents. It is now open to the masses, and the single largest factor in determining an agent’s success will be if they are able to build a brand that focuses on delivering exceptional experiences and service that goes above and beyond what the customer expects.