After a 6 year stretch as director of a national host agency, Stephanie Lee started Host Agency Reviews – a resource website with host reviews and articles to help travel agents start and grow their travel agencies. She was awarded the ASTA’s Young Professional of the Year and Travel Agent Magazine’s 30 under 30 award. As time marches on, the dates of the awards have been surreptitiously left out to avoid drawing attention to the fact she’s aging. She’s not.
Host Agency Reviews is an independent website connecting home-based travel agents and host agencies. With over 140 host agencies and 2400+ reviews, it’s the largest host agency directory on the web. Founded by Steph Lee, a former host agency director, Host Agency Reviews is a resource for home-based travel agents during and after their host travel agency search. Oh, and we like to have fun. Lots of fun.
Travel Research Online (TRO): Hi, Steph. How have you all been since our last interview?
Stephanie Lee (Steph): Fandabulous! We’ve been busy working on the launch of the new site and are now gearing up for our third annual Fee Survey, 2018.
TRO: So, we’ve got word that you all have a new and improved website over at Host Agency Reviews 2.0. It looks great. How long have the plans for this been in the works?
Steph: Thank you — we’re thrilled with the launch of HAR 2.0!
Now, as for how long it was in development…honestly? Way too long! I drew out the plans for HAR 2.0 way back in 2014, but then ended up getting pretty sick. Every time I re-started the project, I would have another flare and wasn’t unable to do anything. It was so frustrating.
I finally realized that someone else needed to head up the project. Bridget stepped into the role in 2017 and did such a wonderful job bringing it to life!
TRO: The new website seems to have a more simplistic and visually appealing look. What were your primary ideas on aesthetic and user-flow when coming up with this look?
Steph: We worked with a designer to help create a site that wasn’t afraid of whitespace. With the addition of so many new features and more data, we wanted to make sure the user experience wasn’t affected.
When the designer reworked the design—they kept it easy to digest, despite the increased amount of profile data and new areas we added to the site.
We put a lot of thought into our new filters and how we presented the information. We wanted visitors to immediately be able to find what they’re looking for. The filters are not only speedy, but intuitive to use.
TRO: One of the new features is more details on hosts (i.e. including lead programs, E & O insurance info, Seller of Travel info, commission splits, cost to join, payment methods, etc.). How do think this will help agents choose their future host agency better?
Steph: Essentially, our goal is to streamline research. When an agent is getting started, research is the step that takes the longest. We wanted to make it easier.
Host agencies aren’t cookie cutter, which is part of what makes researching so difficult. That said, there are certain things that are reliably a component of every host program. There are things agents want to know that we can easily assess like: Do they include E&O insurance? Are new agents accepted? Is there a website program or a leads program? We gathered that info for agents and made it easy to find on the hosts’ profiles.
Instead of going to a hundred host agencies’ websites and writing info on an excel sheet, agents can now use our host agency list filters as a top level search for hosts that are the best fit. From there, they can visit those profiles and see more of the granular data that tends to be harder to compare like information on the programs, inclusions, costs, etc.
The bookmark feature is something we added so that agents can easily access the profiles of their favorite companies. When you’re looking at so many profiles, they start to blur together! The bookmark option helps agents stay organized as they go down the rabbit hole of hunting for a host.
TRO: Another cool feature now available is the ability of the agent to be able to contact the host in more direct ways such as scheduling a call with the host and sending a direct message to the host via your site.
Steph: Yes, we’re so excited about this! Many of the readers of the site are looking at the host profiles after hours, or they just have a few minutes during their lunch hour. The ‘schedule a call’ feature makes it easy to schedule a time to chat with the host, no matter the time of day or how much time you have. As long as you’ve got 60 seconds, you can book an appointment to chat with a host!
And the direct message is handy because, if you’re like me, it’s frustrating when you click ‘Send an Email’ on a page, but it never works because you use Gmail! Direct message allows you to quickly send an email to hosts without having to open your email client.
TRO: In your Etiquette and Rules section, one of your rules is “Mean people suck…and get kicked out”. Personally, I like the direct nature of the wording. How difficult is it to maintain a healthy dialogue in the reviews of hosts?
Steph: It’s safe to say that 95% or more of our reviews are positive. In that sense, it’s very easy to have healthy positive dialogue on the site. The more critical reviews can make healthy dialogue more challenging.
The problem we run into is that reviews are subjective. It’s a person telling others their opinion, from the lens of their experience.
At HAR, we recognize that we play an integral role in the industry, in that our site can sway the public discussion about a host agency—online reviews can make or break a company. So, for us, we try to encourage people the best review is a helpful review, whether it’s positive or critical.
We let people know that emotional, overly exaggerated reviews aren’t very valuable to other agents. Give us facts, tell us exactly why you’re happy or unhappy. If you’re unhappy, tell us the routes you’ve taken to try to amend the situation. If you’re happy, tell us what part of the host’s program has helped you grow your company, or give us a tip on how to best utilize the host’s agent portal. In-depth, thoughtful reviews are the most valuable to readers and hosts—scathing reviews and fluff reviews aren’t really contributing to the conversation.
TRO: You’ve also added a powerful search filter that assists the agent in narrowing down the host they are looking for. Can you tell us about that?
Steph: Boy can I ever! So, here’s the deal. We made the decision to only have certain profile info filterable. While you can see if a host belongs to ASTA or PATH on their profile, a filter that allows you to search by the associations a host belongs to isn’t an option. Why did we do this? Because Analysis Paralysis is real, people!
We want to avoid information overload and we think the best way to do that is starting with an easy-to-digest filter interface. Why show 30 different filtering options and overwhelm people when we can get you down to a manageable list of prospective companies just by asking a few key requirements?
So, we start filtering by asking you about some things that may have requirements, like your experience level, what country you live in, or if your agency is storefront or home-based. If you’re a new home-based agent, then let’s not even bother cluttering your mind with hosts that only accept experienced agents or require that their agents have storefronts.
Once you’re down to a manageable size of prospective hosts, you can use our sub-filters to go more in-depth or start perusing your list and bookmarking the ones you like!
TRO: Going back to the direct connection between agent and host, I hear you’ve implemented a Q&A section on the hosts’ profiles. This also includes a dashboard in the back-end of the agent experience where they can view their questions, answers, and past reviews. How did this idea come about?
Steph: I can’t take credit for this, as our site users really planted this seed! When you build a site, sometimes people surprise you with how they use it. On the old site, we’d sometimes have people write questions to the hosts, except they’re write it in the review field. That sparked the idea of having a section specifically for Q&As, where we could help both agents and hosts by having a place where agents and hosts could publicly ask/answer questions.
The neat thing about it is that anyone can answer the questions: host agency reps, agents with that host, or even an agent with another host that can help answer the question. Using the Q&A search filter, visitors can quickly find the unanswered questions to see if they can help answer any!
One last Q&A feature to mention, I promise! Users are able to up-vote/down-vote questions, so that the most relevant questions are shown first. If there are multiple answers to a question, agents help us find the most helpful answer to show first by giving helpful answers a thumbs up.
TRO: Consortia are a new classification within the travel industry that you are focusing on now as well. How can the agent use your site to research consortia that may help them figure out the path they wish to take their career?
Steph: Our consortia list is also a great source of information for agencies that have their own accreditation and don’t need a host. When an agency is shopping around for a consortium, they can find all their options on our travel consortia list. Within the consortia profiles, there are details on the programs, reviews from their members, costs, etc. If a travel leads program is important to the agency, they can easily bookmark consortia that fit that criteria.
While it’s a great place for agencies with their own accreditation, the travel consortia list is also really helpful to hosted agents since consortia and host agencies are closely linked in the travel industry. The problem used to be: if you’re a Virtuoso agent switching hosts, and you know you want to stick with Virtuoso, how do you quickly find a list of Virtuoso host agencies? On HAR 2.0, you can find all the Virtuoso host agencies by visiting Virtuoso’s profile, where they’re all listed, with links to their profiles.
TRO: Does Host Agency Reviews have any other big news for the website coming up?
Steph: Yes! We have the Travel Industry Events Calendar which just launched. It’s for the industry-at-large so it can be anything from vendor events, FAM trips, trainings, conferences/trade shows, ship inspections—you name it.
We have filters for agents to help narrow things down. Agents can narrow it down to only online events, or those that are invite only. They can filter by which niche the event is targeting (e.g. Cruises, Honeymoons and Destination Weddings, Adventure Travel, etc.)
And we’ve got quite a few other surprises up our sleeves that I think agents will love! Look for those to be unveiled in 2019…
PS: And, if you’re a company with an event, currently all event listings are free through Q1—just reach out to us and we can get your event on the calendar!
TRO: Thank you for your time, and we at TRO hope good things for your future success with the new website.
Steph: Thank you, thank you! It’s been a blast chatting with you!