Earlier this month, Crystal Seaton did an interview with ABC 11 on the advantages of booking getaways with a travel agent. This brought up the changing face of the travel industry, and how it affects consultants and agents. Today, we are interviewing Crystal Seaton and Rob Stern on how travel agents can increase their publicity and let the public know the perks of using travel agents.
Crystal is a travel professional who started following her dream of helping others plan amazing vacations in 2009. She specializes in Disney Destinations, Adventure Tours, Carribean Destinations, Hawaii, Cruises and All Inclusives.
Crystal is well traveled with over 20 trips to Walt Disney World, three trips to Disneyland, multiple cruises on different cruises lines, travel to Jamaica, Curacao, and Europe, as well as extensively through the United States including Hawaii, Alaska and Puerto Rico.
Crystal loves working with families and individuals to find the right fit for them whether it be a semi-annual trip or a once in a lifetime vacation. Crystal is passionate about the travel industry and is the director of the Raleigh NACTA Chapter.
Rob Stern was Director of Information Services for Destination Marketing Association International, from 2003-2010. DMAI represents convention and visitors bureaus around the world. He has also served as Information Specialist to the American Hotel & Lodging Association, and was a travel agent for the American Automobile Association for almost four years. His other travel industry positions include Historic Hotels of America and the American Resort Development Association. Rob began his tourism career at Betsy Ross Tours, a Washington, DC tour operator. Rob has visited all 50 U.S. states, Europe, Asia, South America and the Caribbean, he has first hand knowledge of many destinations.
Travel Research Online (TRO): So, according to the interview Crystal was on, travel agents are “still a thing”. Though most people reading this are quite aware of that, is this something you both hear frequently?
Rob Stern (RS): Yes, I do hear this from time to time. I remind people that we never really left, we’ve just reinvented ourselves. We specialize in travel niches and many of us are home based now. We operate a little differently, but we’re very much still here.
Crystal Seaton (CS): I do still occasionally get asked if Travel Agents still exist. I try to use these opportunities to educate the public.
TRO: How did this interview come about, and what do you think motivated travel agents can do to increase their exposure to the public?
RS: I live in a medium sized city, and the local reporters are very interactive online here. I began commenting on stories from ABC11’s Troubleshooter, Diane Wilson, a Facebook friend, several months earlier. I Informally commented on some travel related posts she made about the winter weather, and when she mentioned she was looking forward to her family vacation. I made some suggestions about her upcoming Spring Break visit to Cancun and Riviera Maya. I then sent her an e-mail saying that I could be a source of information if she was doing a story on Spring or Summer travel planning. She ran the idea by her managers, and the subject changed to whether it was cheaper to use a travel agent, or to book your own vacation online, and why. I sent her some story quotes when I found out I was going to be out of town when she needed to tape the segment. I would suggest that other agents interact with their local media in an informal way, providing them with travel information on Facebook and Twitter, and then suggesting a timely story idea, like “When to book holiday travel” or “Why Fall cruise deals are not always a bargain.” I include them in my e-mail blasts about flights to new cities or when there are travel related labor strikes, but I would never send them e-mails with sales specials on vacation packages or cruises.
CS: Honestly, Rob nurtured the relationship with Diane at ABC. I simply stepped in when he was not available. I think being active on social media with your local news reporters is very important for this type of exposure. Any opportunity you can take to step in the public eye in a positive way is a good idea.
TRO: Crystal, you discussed Value vs. Price in the interview. Citing things such as hidden fees, the knowledge of the locations, time saved, and fine print. How would both of you suggest agents relay this to potential clients?
RS: We need to constantly remind clients that we are “the human touch.” The internet is a great source of information, and we are the interpreters, on the travel side. We provide the “why” and the “how come.” Our knowledge and experience are what set us apart.
CS: I talk to clients about this in our initial conversation. I remind them that I work for them and want to find the perfect trip for their family. This may be different than the perfect trip than they would find on a website because I take time to get to know them. I remind them that sometimes it is better to pay a bit more for a better experience and that I will work to get them the best value which may or may not be the cheapest price. However my experience and relationships with hotels and vendors is vital in making sure their vacation is fabulous.
Travel Research Online (TRO): Crystal, you also mentioned that travel agents continue to look for deals even after the planning was in process. This seems like a vital service as the traveler isn’t locked into anything before getting the best deal possible. What are both of your thoughts on this level of service, and should every agent put in this kind of work to ensure a growing business?
RS: I agree, that’s the time and money saving aspect of our work. We know the pricing patterns, and when to stop looking for a low fare and when to book. If you’re booking Southwest flights, for example, we know that they have regular fare sales, and we can rebook to get flight credit for clients who book early. Sometimes hotel and car rental rates drop close in, so those can be adjusted as well. That gives us kudos for being proactive, thoughtful, and careful with our client’s money.
CS: For Road To Relaxation Travel, this is part of our business model. We work to help our clients get the best value. I honestly cannot speak to what other agents should do. I can say that I find this to be an important service for our clients.
TRO: Good publicity and marketing looks like the key for travel agents to take a more prominent role in the travel industry again. How do you think agent should go about fostering this trust with the public?
RS: I agree, and I attend as many networking events as I can. The local chambers of commerce, boards of trade, community events, etc. Often, I’m the only travel agent in the room, and travel is usually something that most people feel comfortable talking about, and often have questions about. You can gain their confidence in that initial meeting, and then exchange business cards. It’s about the soft sell for me, since that’s part of my personality.
CS: Community Involvement is so very important. Even when you are working as an individual, you are representing our industry and your agency. Networking, volunteering, participating in neighborhood activities are all important tools. And taking the time to educate people whenever the opportunity arises is the best way to foster trust.
TRO: Even travel agents who book multiple styles of travel (cruise, all-inclusive, Disney, Honeymoons, etc.) have a specialty. Do either of you have a suggestion for an agent looking to specialize in a field of travel?
RS: I am a generalist, but I have niches I’m more comfortable selling than others, and I let clients know what I know, where I’ve been, and give them the option. If you’re looking for a safari or scuba travel expert, that’s not me, but if you want a trip to Turks and Caicos or Kenya, I can still help you. I say sell what you know but offer to help book elements of a trip if the client is OK with that. People what to work with someone they can trust.
CS: Sell what you know. Start with where you are comfortable. You can always learn more as you grow in the industry.
TRO: If either of you could add anything to the interview that you think the public should know about travel agents, what would it be?
RS: Be flexible, but be specific. Any agent needs specific dates to check for availability but requesting to “go somewhere warm as soon as possible” or saying, “I can travel anytime this summer” is not helpful. Having a first and second choice set of dates in mind will give you better results. If you can travel a few days before or after, to see if there’s a price difference, say so.
There are few last-minute deals to popular places, but there are some deals to less popular ones, like northern city stays during winter holiday weekends. Plan ahead, plan ahead, plan ahead.
Many agents will look for possible supplier discounts, such as student, senior, first responder, etc. You need to mention who the travelers are when you talk to your agent and see if the discounts apply for your trip.
Service fees are the norm, as they are for many trade professionals, and you should ask about them. They vary by agent, the amount of work involved, the type of trip, etc.
CS: Travel Agents are still very much a thriving business and I highly recommend that everyone use one. Just because you can book your own travel really doesn’t mean that you should
TRO: Do either of you have anything on the horizon for your respective agencies that we should be looking out for?
CS: Our agency is in state of growth at the moment. We are hiring amazing agents in an effort to build our business and our brand and better service our clients as well as offer great resources to our agents.