To check out Part 1 of this two-part article, please click here.
Tripadvisor is offering its 463 million monthly customers easy access to a professional travel advisor—and you have to give them credit for going ahead with the rollout of the Reco program this month, in the midst of a global pandemic. The travel advisors who have signed up are being patient, though. After all, the program costs them nothing but time (which many have plenty of)—and holds the promise that the world’s largest online booking site will be sending them a stream of new fee-paying customers when travel comes back.
“This is our chance to have a crack at the luxury market that is not using travel advisors, our chance to convert DIYers into long-term clients,” says April Schmitt of Divine Destination Weddings.
“It’s another avenue of marketing—and I am always looking for new avenues of marketing,” says Africa expert Gail Woloz, of Gail’s Travel & Safaris. When Instagram found her through Signature Travel’s Experts Select program, “I grabbed it by the horns and went for it. What the heck, what do I have to lose? I built my client base through in-person events, but with Covid I had to find a new way to do things—and tech was it. And I’m not good at tech.”
Advisors who sign up with Reco can set a minimum budget for customers they will work with (say, only trips of $10,000 or more), and have a chance to chat with interested customers to make sure they are a good fit. If so, customers pay Tripadvisor a $199 fee, of which the travel advisor gets 25% (roughly $50) plus all commissions earned from the trip. They are free to work offsite with the customer, and to set fees of their own, after the first trip.
The Reco team has been “wonderful” to work with, Woloz says and, while she has not yet gotten a safari booking, she knows other advisors who have booked trips in the US, Caribbean and Mexico.
In a changing business like travel, flexibility is the key to success, she says. “Travel is always being reinvented; it’s always a new industry and I’m always looking for new angles. If Baby Boomers, or families, or experiential are the market, that’s where I go; if I have to go on Facebook or Instagram, I do it. And with elderly customers passing away, I need to find a younger generation to market to—and Reco seems like an interesting new platform.”
In fact, the slowdown in business has made this the perfect time to try something new; “in normal times I’m extremely busy, and normally I would charge a much higher fee,” Woloz says. “But if I get way too busy, I can just not accept more clients. That’s what sold me on this.”
“If we can’t beat them, let’s work with them,” agrees Sandy Anderson of Riverdale Travel in California, where two travel advisors are signed up for the program. “I’m excited to see where it goes, and I’m excited that they are very picky about who’s part of it; the agents they selected are agents I would select for my own vacation.”
A Tale of Two Fees
While it was a lot of work to create the necessary content (“they want a lot of pictures and I listed five specialties, so it took some time”), Cathy Udovch, an independent contractor with Travelstore in Irvine, CA, thinks it will be worth the effort for a number of reasons—not the least being the opportunity to support her agency’s new policy of mandatory fees for 2021.
“My philosophy is, if you’re not part of it and it does come through, you will miss out,” she says. And with Reco being linked to her Instagram account, at least the photos that she posts are keeping her Instagram feed fresh.
Even more important, though, is setting that $199 fee in the mind of customers, Udovch noted. She has never charged fees before and is uncomfortable bringing up the subject with existing customers—but “because these people have already paid a $199 fee, it’s going to be much easier to charge them next time.” And while she is at it, she will offer the option of an annual fee instead of paying per trip.
While his Africa specialty also has not brought any customers yet, J5Travel’s John Rees also was attracted by the fact that “the fees being charged were right in line with our own fee structure, the platform looked extremely smooth, and there was zero cost to signing up.”
Off to a Good Start
Meanwhile, some already are converting Reco leads into bookings. Theresa Chu-Bermudez, a Japan specialist at Get Out Custom Travels in Tampa, “didn’t have very high expectations,” but already has gotten three new “quality clients who have booked through me that otherwise would not have found me.”
At VIP Vacations Inc., where a number of agents have made bookings, President Jennifer Doncsecz herself has gotten three new customers. Asked how much commission that translates into, she declined to cite an exact number—but noted, “I’m a specialist in Tahiti, so that should give you an idea!”
Ever the Bridesmaid, Never the Bride
Even those who have not yet booked new business are still hopeful.
“Reco has been in frequent communication with us, fleshing out the program and looking beyond our specialty niches for other ways to market individual travel advisors,” says Lu Maggiora, an independent contractor with Travel Adventures Unlimited. “My niche is Cruise Groups—the #1 impacted niche!!!—but my sub-niche is Hawaii, and they also highlighted me on their Hawaii landing page.”
Maggiora was mostly “simply curious how the program would work, and set a high minimum daily per person/per day to discourage tire kickers and low budgets. But the theory is flexibility to work with whoever you want (leads can be turned down), whenever you want (you can turn off availability if you’re out of town), and the client belongs to you, not Reco. I consider it a grand experiment in a new era of travel that will be filled with experiments!”
Gifted Travel Network member Julia Matheson at Travel Julia’s Way, in Hickory, NC, was drawn by the simple promise of “so many travelers.” With specialties in domestic travel and France, she has gotten about a dozen inquiries, but most of them were for drive vacations that did not really require a travel advisor. And she does wish the platform supported video, which she considers an important part of her marketing on Instagram. Still, she has booked one nine-day road trip through New England.
“It certainly hasn’t been a revolution in the industry yet, but I do think it’s a valid idea,” she says. “If it takes off, it could be pretty cool.”
Been There and Liked It
For some travel advisers in the program, this is not the first dance with a referral service—and they are happy to take another spin.
Adrienne Sasson of Rubinsohn Travel, for example, first learned to develop leads 20 years ago from Recommend and Tripology with John Peters. With any referral source, she says, some leads pan out and others don’t. But she still has relationships today with many of those clients. While some travel advisors are complaining that Tripadvisor is keeping 75% of the $199 fee, “I see this as marketing for which I do not have to pay. I have more exposure—and if all works out well, new clients on our books.”
Independent contractor Meg Austin of the Travel Society has been a member of referral programs from Conde Nast and Wendy Perrin for years, and says “it’s been great.”
“What I like about Reco is being able to say flat out, ‘we are not a good fit.’ If I were starting out, I’d be more than happy to partner with them to build a client base. The majority of my business today is absolutely thanks to Conde Nast and Wendy Perrin. I have clients I got 20 years ago who call me now and say, ‘here’s my credit card; book us a Christmas trip and let us know where we’re going.’”
Cheryl’s 40-year career in journalism is bookended by roles in the travel industry, including Executive Editor of Business Travel News in the 1990s, and recently, Editor in Chief of Travel Market Report and admin of Cheryl Rosen’s Group for Travel Professionals, a news and support group on Facebook.
As an independent contractor since retiring from the 9-to-5 to travel more, she has written regular articles about the life and business of travel agents for Luxury Travel Advisor, Travel Agent and Insider Travel Report. She also writes and edits for professional publications in the financial services, business and technology sectors.