The most common reason, and one that overshadows all others for do-it-yourself booking, is “empowerment”. Consumers who book on their own like the feeling that they have full knowledge of the vacation planning process. The consumer feels “in charge” with so much information accessible on the other side of their keyboard. Whether the consumer is using Google to research a destination or using Travelocity to research and book the specific components of a trip, they have immediate access to hundreds, even thousands of options to even the most obscure destination.
Travel agents know well the counter-arguments. Having information is different from understanding information. The overload of possibilities, obscure tour operators and options can overwhelm a consumer who can then make disastrous choices based on price, the pictures used on the suppliers web site or any number of reasons having nothing to do with the reliability or quality of the supplier’s operation. The supplier may be inappropriate for the travel preferences of the client. Customer service is non-existent when using an online travel site for air and hotel reservations. An airline’s site deprives you of alternative.
But these are all counter-arguments and who wants to argue?
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The client who chooses to book themselves wants to feel empowered. They view the travel agent through the retail paradigm that positions the travel agent as selling travel. Before the internet, travel agents had access to “hidden” resources like the GDS systems and access to travel specials not available direct to the public. The retail paradigm indicates that as a retailer, the travel agent’s mission is to sell the travel commodity for as high a price as the client will possibly pay to earn a higher commission. The self-booking consumer wants to cut through all of the mystery and to “see for themselves” what is out there, to shop around and compare values and prices. Is this a scenario for a trusting, long lasting relationship?
From the outset of your relationship with any client, seek to shift the paradigm away from retail to consultant. You are not going to sell anything. You are going to coach the client into making a good buying decision. Clients are going to research on the internet. Clients will see other opportunities to purchase travel. Your reaction? GREAT! Encourage them to bring you options if they care to research along with you. You and the client can work as a team, coach. If your job is to assist the client in making a smart buying decision, then why does the source of the information matter?
Demystify travel for your clients. Empower them. Tell them how travel works, but more importantly, tell them how YOU work. Explain your expertise and how it benefits them. Explain your consortia, supplier relationships and professional resources and how it benefits them. Incorporate them fully in the process of travel planning.
Travelocity offering a package $300 less than you have found it? Good! That might be a viable option if you cannot get a price match from one of your suppliers who will provide superior customer service. So how do you get paid for your time and effort? How are you compensated for bringing your expertise to bear and analyzing the best possible choice for the client who then found it on Travelocity? From your Plan to Go fee. But won’t the client be paying more for travel? No. The travel was $300 less than any other supplier. Your Plan to Go fee pays for the expertise you bring to the table, the expertise that informs the client of the risks of using Travelocity, or the merits of using a supplier that you have dealt with for years and with which you have placed dozens of clients. It is your expertise that chose the destination, the resort, the nightlife and the excursions. It is your expertise that recommended a particular room in the resort. You provided the clients with the destination guides, the resort’s collateral and the comfort of having a professional sort through the information garnered in the research process.
Note – As I did the research for yesterday and today’s column, a common theme emerged. Regardless of the reason a consumer uses for self-booking, the root cause most often comes down to the travel agency community’s failure to consistently and clearly demonstrate it’s value proposition. For every reason not to use an agent, relatively simple to understand counters were available to present a strong argument for using a travel agent. However, what is clear is that the traveling public by-and-large does not fully understand what a travel agent does for them. It is tempting to blame the consumer for this lack of knowledge, but the responsibility is 100% at the feet of the travel industry for failing to properly explain the value and role of the travel agent to the process of purchasing travel. Simply put, the retail paradigm is not only not conducive to the establishment of a long-term consultative relationship, it is simply no longer viable. Those that continue to cling to it will be replaced not by the internet, but by more adept travel consultants. It’s time to re-align our public image.
Your expertise has value, and if you can tell that story in your marketing and in your explanation of the buying process, you can thrive in an era of information overload.