It’s time we dropped the term “travel agent.” The fundamental problem, of course, is the orientation of the term: it indicates our primary relationship is with the supplier rather than with the traveler. If that is true, then we are doomed to move from one travel transaction to the next. If, however, our relationships are with clients then we can act as travel consultants, planners and professionals.
Let’s look at both the semantics and the perception cast by the use of the term “agent.”
The earliest years of airline deregulation were for the travel professional industry a matter of happy coincidence. The early CRS systems were the keys to the travel kingdom and travel “agents” largely lucked into a privileged position as the gatekeepers for the world of travel. As the air, tour and cruise industries began to mature, the travel agent distribution channel was a natural vehicle for selling travel to the public. As a result, with comparatively little effort, travel agents had almost exclusive access to valuable product to place with their clients. Travel suppliers leveraged the historical relationship established by travel agents with the public and took advantage of a large sales force whose chief economy was that they were widely dispersed and worked on commission – a supplier only paid them when they made a sale.
With the advent of the internet, new avenues of distribution opened up to travel suppliers. “Online travel agencies” and direct to consumer sales became two of the most viable of the new distribution channels. Like new life forms emerging from slimy seas, permutations like “vacation clubs”, multi-level marketing and card mills arose. In each instance the new distribution channels have experienced varied success and have found a willingness of suppliers to experiment with the possibilities inherent in getting their products to market as efficiently as possible.
The resulting free-for-all has confused the public which now views a “travel agent” as one more travel retail outlet. If travel agents are just one more place where the public can buy travel, then the logical focus will be on price. Further, the retail mentality is hard to break. The travel professional often appears hooked on a transactional way of doing business.
Smart travel consultants form relationships with clients. learning marketing, focusing on customer service and the theory of travel planning. In fact, I will go so far as to say if you lose a customer to the internet or to a supplier directly, it’s not because the other agency or the online giant or the supplier knew more about the product than you, it’s because they knew more about customer service, marketing and sales than you.
It’s all about relationships. It actually always has been and it always will be. Because if it’s not, then you fall into camp with the “it’s all about price” crowd, and it’s hard to imagine why you are in this industry. The best travel consultants work with their clients to make the consumer smarter about travel, better travelers, wiser in their choices and selections. Price is only one small component of the equation.
Don’t think for a moment that you can drift your way through the next few years without consideration of this important point and rise above the herd. Some percentage of your colleagues is looking to enhance its acumen and develop the business skills necessary to rise into the top 20% of the industry. That means turning your clients into theirs.
Does it matter whether you call yourself an “agent” or a “consultant?” I think it does. How about you?