ASTA recently took the bold step of rebranding itself to the “American Society of Travel Advisors.” For an organization of some 87 year history, a rebranding of this magnitude is no small feat. It may be years before the significance of the change filters through to the traveling public, but no individual in the travel industry should misunderstand the shift in the dynamics of the relationship that has been taking place between travel professional and client now reflected in the new brand. Under Zane Kerby’s leadership ASTA has been remaking itself, reorganizing internally and shaping new opportunities for the travel community. With the rebranding, the clock begins ticking to see if the promise of those efforts can be made a reality in public perception.
There is a sizeable gap between what travel advisors think their role is and how the public perceives them. Most clients come into contact with a travel professional with a serious misapprehension, thinking the “travel agent” sells travel. The travel advisor, however, views themselves as a professional coach who assists the traveler in making intelligent buying decisions. Those two perceptions are so utterly mismatched it is little wonder than misunderstandings so often occur. The client too often thinks their role is to be cagey, to research around the travel professional, to withhold information, to shop your research and knowledge around on the internet and with other agencies.
Most of the public views you as something of a retail shop, one of many possible outlets where they can buy travel. In this popular vision of the role of the travel “agent”, you have some inside knowledge of a list of “special deals” and can therefore obtain travel cheaper than the public at large. To this segment of the population, travel is largely a commodity, a matter of getting from A to B with a hotel at one end. When an item is a commodity there are no differences between the same item sourced from different places except for one: price. If, in fact, this vision of your role in the relationship is accurate, you had better be pretty good at what you do. The public is armed with some pretty amazing tools for finding the lowest price and some giant retailers out there can almost always source and discount any particular travel product more cheaply than you.
Let me be very clear – the vast majority of travel professionals cannot and should not compete on price. This is actually a good thing. Why involve yourself in a low margin race to the bottom? If you make the decision to compete on price and do so without a full understanding of the economics and commitment involved, some aspect of your business model is badly flawed. Yet, I’ve see many travel professionals revel in winning business regardless of the cost. Here’s a pretty solid economic principle: winning business is not the most important thing – making a profit is, however. Far too many travel professionals are led by a model of winning business at any cost, justifying the exercise by the promise of future business from the loss leader. Not likely. The customer won on price will be lost on price. If you train clients to focus on price, you should never express surprise at their lack of “loyalty.” In fact, however, the client is not at fault, they are totally loyal to price and product, not to the relationship with the agent.
In my estimation, ASTA’s rebranding signifies the need to rid the profession of any scintilla of the concept travel advisors sell travel. That is the antiquated version of “travel agent” from years past. There is a reason the number of “agencies” declined so dramatically since 1995. Gone. Gone. Gone. Persist in a conversation echoing the notion you are selling travel and you are doomed to compete with Costco and to be shopped in every transaction. As a professional, your language and your attitudes shape those of your client. If you treat travel as a commodity, as an item of merchandise, a vendible, then so will your clients.
Change the conversation.
Your job is to help consumers make intelligent buying decisions. If you truly adopt the perspective of a consultant, why does price become the most crucial aspect of the buying process? Is that the chief consideration in any other buying decision you make? Do you buy a washer and drier solely on the basis of price? Does brand matter, do features, warranty, service and even more emotional considerations like color and appearance? Is price the sole determinant of the coffee you drink, the car you drive or hairdresser? My guess is the answer to each of these questions is a resounding “No.” Yet, many travel professionals are absolutely certain that the only thing that matters to their clients is price.
Here’s the thing – Travelocity is not your competition. More truly, OTAs and discounters are simply a part of the landscape of the industry. The millions of dollars spent by OTAs , discounters and suppliers on marketing actually inure to your benefit by educating the consumer and keeping “travel” top of mind. Your real competition is perception – the client who doesn’t understand what you do and how you do it, who doesn’t understand the value of your services. As a professional it is your responsibility to make yourself understood through your marketing – and that is the value and function of a good marketing plan.
Shape the conversation to speak of the experience of travel and your role as an advisor. Promoting the experience elevates the status of travel to the realm of memories and great life events. As such, price becomes far less important to the buyer. Your role as a travel planner takes on a greater importance as you educate and enlighten your clients. You become the client’s partner in a relationship, a collaborative enterprise.
ASTA’s rebranding will be successful to the extent the industry as a whole can fully assimilate the new paradigm.
Now, I have a massive number of videos to edit: