In an unusual year for travel, a partnership between an OTA and established travel advisors is arguably the most unusual alliance of all.
And yet, say the advisors who signed up, the global pandemic has them thinking it’s a good time to rethink they way they do business. Tripadvisor’s Reco program promises to put them in front of 463 million potential travel buyers a month, to show these do-it-yourself bookers just how important a real-life travel advisor can be—and to set $199 in the public’s mind as a base fee for working with a professional travel advisor.
Charged 18 months ago with developing new products for the world’s largest booking site, Tripadvisor’s New Ventures Directors Sean Graber and Erik Ornitz “were not big users of travel advisors,” Ornitz acknowledged when we chatted, and were only vaguely aware of the role of consortia and host agencies.
But focus groups pointed them to “a huge opportunity to create a platform that would elevate travel advisors and give them a new audience—and our users were over-the-moon excited” about speaking with an expert on international destinations or destination weddings, he said. Many “didn’t know where to start to find a travel advisor.”
So Graber and Ornitz came up with the Reco program, where customers pay a $199 upfront trip-planning fee and are put in touch with an expert in the destination in which they are interested. The two sides have a chance to chat. If they feel they are a good fit, the customer pays the fee to Tripadvisor, the travel advisor gets a $50 fee, and the two parties are free to work together on this and on all future bookings. All commissions earned, now and on future trips in which they work together, go to the travel advisor, who “owns” the customer from then on.
In its initial search for advisors, Tripadvisor tapped many well-known luxury advisors through Virtuoso, Signature, and Travel Leaders. But they also included a new breed of young and tech-oriented advisors, like the 30-something Jeremy and Sietra Jones, owners of Where Life Meets Living in San Antonio, TX, who have built a successful travel business through Instagram posts featuring videos taken by drones over interesting destinations.
“Tripadvisor liked the unique approach we were taking to selling travel,” Jeremy says (while Sietra had to take a pass on our interview to nurse their new baby). “Whenever we traveled, we brought a drone and several action cameras, and we’d get back and edit our videos and photos and give detailed accounts of what we did and where we stayed.”
Even with 30,000 followers on Instagram and a background in high-level medical sales, building a luxury-focused agency “takes a lot of persistence and a lot of luck,” he notes. “You never know what’s going to be saved and shared by your followers. But sometimes large accounts repost us, and that gets us more followers.”
For them, Tripadvisor’s vast customer base was too big a draw to resist. “My wife and I are in medical sales, so we understand how a pipeline of leads is very, very necessary when you are trying to generate revenue and build a business. It was a no-brainer for us to say we’d love to be part of this.”
They already have gotten several inquiries and planned “a handful” of trips, mostly to the Caribbean, Mexico and Jamaica, and an 11-day honeymoon to Peru.
“The difficult part is getting those who are new to using a travel advisor used to paying,” he says. “Some don’t really understand the benefit of using a travel advisor; they just want to probe. And honestly, I think some people try to get as much information as they can before they have to pay.” (Indeed, we’ve all met the “can-I-just-pick-your-brain-for-a-minute” customer base.)
As the program came out of beta and into full launch in 2020, just as Covid-19 brought the travel industry to a standstill, the biggest surprise, he said, was “that we are getting inquiries from those who would like to travel the world at a time like this, that people are still willing to travel, that people still have that itch. That’s been a good surprise.”
And since news of the vaccine, interest has picked up.
“Reco is definitely a great program for travel advisors who don’t have a brick and mortar location, who are new to the industry like we are, who just don’t have that client base that’s been booking with us for 10 or 15 years, and are in need of new clients,” Jones said. “You are giving up some of the initial revenue when a client signs up and hires you. But part of the pie is better than no pie.”
Still, the couple is not relying solely on Instagram. They also are “toying with the Facebook business platform,” where they have set up a new landing page to attract clients.
When it came to setting a fee for travel advisor services, said Graber, “we talked to travel advisors and did testing with users; we felt it was important to come out with a standard and simple price point. We really tried to understand what travel advisors were charging and come up with a price that made sense to the majority of them and also felt right to the customer—and importantly, one that was enough of a commitment that it would screen out folks who weren’t that interested. Safeguarding travel advisors and screening the leads to make sure they are serious is an important part of the platform, and the fee is part of the way we do that.”
Even as the pandemic raged around them, the plan to bring the program to market continued, Ornitz said. “The response has been measured by the pandemic but we knew that going in. We felt we could bring Reco to market to start learning everything, from the technology to what features we need to add or change, to how do we talk to the consumer. So, even in spite of the really broad travel restrictions travelers face, the entire team has been so excited to see the trips that have been planned. We’ve had people whose honeymoons were canceled and a travel advisor came in and saved the day; we’ve had people reschedule anniversary trips; we’ve been really heartened to see the interaction. Launching in a pandemic is a really hard time, but I think most travel advisors would agree there’s never been a time when it’s more important to have a travel advisor.”
For now, Reco is working with 325 travel advisors. It has suspended new applications for now but “we definitely invite travel advisors to come to our page,” Graber said. The current partners are “an amazing group from the US and abroad with all manner of specialties. It’s so cool how many different types of people are involved in travel, some who’ve been doing this for years, and some with only a couple of years’ experience but coming from other areas that they are able to bring to bear on travel and connect to clients in a different way. The beauty is that a customer can come to Reco and find that person who’s really a good match for them.”
The number will be growing in 2021, he said. “There’s no limit to the number; really the main driver will be the broader recovery. We are trying to become a big part of the travel ecosystem. We view ourselves as a way to evangelize for the industry, to talk to customers who don’t realize what a travel advisor can do for them. Travel advisors are the best-kept secret in the industry and a rising tide lifts all boats.”
In the end, says Ornitz, “we’re excited to be part of the return to travel, to help travel advisors get their business back and kick-start some of the local economies that have been hurt by the lack of tourism. We hope to do our part to make those trips happen. We have a lot of travelers and hopefully will be adding them to the client base of travel advisors.”
(Stay tuned for Part 2 next week, when we speak with advisors who are in the program and some who decided not to apply.)
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.