I’ve been consulting with travel agencies of various shapes and sizes for about four years now, helping them look at their businesses as “business owners,” versus “travel agents.” During these 48 months, many issues have challenged them to better manage their companies.
Take the whole “consumer direct” firestorm about four years ago, when the major hotel chains aggressively pushed guests to book through their loyalty programs. Then the growth of Airbnb became a big concern. Advisors worried that their clients would decamp to the home share website for their lodging and experiences.
And nothing has been a bigger problem the last 12 months than the depressed travel demand and general craziness surrounding COVID-19.
But throughout the rise and fall of these and many other issues impacting travel advisors, my clients have faced one consistent issue that, in the end, is THE BIGGEST controllable factor for their ultimate success—customer relationship management (CRM).
Yes. CRM. For decades, the travel advisor profession has suffered from poor dedicated resources to put their back office reporting and marketing tools in one easy to use platform. For example, travel suppliers insist on advisors using their own proprietary booking engines, spreading their consumer and booking data across numerous, unconnected platforms.
Three years ago, while working with one South Florida agent, our whole project to refocus her business fell to pieces because she could not produce two years’ worth of booking trends; so we could understand what she was selling, and which sales made her the kind of profits that could help her most easily grow her agency.
Depending on the host agency or franchisor you work with, you might have it better than my client did, because your host provides you with a proprietary tool and dashboard. I know several Virtuoso agents who tell me their host agency provides fairly good reporting for both marketing and business planning purposes.
But even then, there are notable breakdowns. Signature Travel Network is working on a multi-million project to sync up booking data from the industry’s leader, ClientBase, with a true, nimble CRM platform where its member agencies can host, manipulate, and maximize traveler profiles.
All of that could be changing.
Lee Rosen, the original founder and CEO of Trams, the highly successful travel agency back office system developed in the late 1980s—which eventually gave birth to ClientBase—recently launched Tres Technologies, a cloud-based CRM and back office platform set to launch the first half of this year.
“It is so important to the growth and profitability of travel advisors that they understand the way dollars flow in and out of their business,” Rosen told me in an interview recently.
“I’m seeing more sophisticated, professional, and organized travel agency owners and independent advisors who are acknowledging that the data and platforms they have aren’t working.”
Rosen introduced the Trams back office system to the industry around 1990-91. The ClientBase CRM system followed in 1995. Eventually, Rosen sold the two platforms to Sabre Corp. in 2006, and was appointed general manager of Sabre Leisure. He stepped down in 2009, during the global financial crisis, when Sabre and most other travel companies went through a painful series of staff cuts.
At the time of his departure, the Trams back-office product had 10,500 agency locations, and the Trams ClientBase Plus reporting/marketing tool had 35,000 North America agent subscribers. The two products are the back office tools of choice for most of the major travel agency networks, like Signature and Virtuoso.
Unfortunately, the ClientBase CRM has been plagued by little new investment from Sabre, and travel advisors loathe it for its lack of flexibility, antiquated user interface, and relatively expensive cost. I constantly hear from travel advisors that ClientBase is exceedingly frustrating and difficult to use for modern marketing needs, so they have to purchase additional CRM software like Hubspot.
“To get travel advisors to use data, it has to be available for them,” Rosen said.
I could not agree with Rosen more. After years of hearing endless complaints about the lack of a good CRM tool, I conducted a survey about the topic in 2019. I received responses from about 135 travel advisors. What I learned didn’t surprise me.
Most business owners in other industries use a CRM to track sales prospects and clients, and over time learn enough about them to qualify them for offers customized to their wants and needs. That data informs a company’s business strategy and helps them forecast what their sales and profits could be by pulling different levers, like marketing and pricing.
But not in travel. In my survey, travel advisors told me their main priority of having a CRM was to track and manage reservations (56.3%). The second main priority was to track commissions (25%).
The reason was simple. They have been conditioned to think of CRM that way because it doesn’t offer the marketing and analysis products advisors want.
Indeed, only 16.3% said marketing and sales was their main priority for a CRM, and only 9.6% defined business analysis and planning as a main CRM priority. Even when I asked travel advisors what their second most important CRM priority was, marketing and sales was named by only 15.6% of advisors, although business analysis and planning was named their second highest priority by about 16% of advisors.
There are a number of smaller CRM companies, like TESS, TravelJoy and Vacation CRM. But each one of those products is deficient in one or more of the functionalities Tres Technologies is determined to provide all under one roof.
I spoke with several executives who work in the travel technology space, who have reviewed the Tres Technologies product and spoken to Rosen. All of them are describing his platform as a game changer, because the system is infinitely more flexible and will come at a monthly price the typical travel advisor can afford.
“Lee has the team, the knowledge, and the industry credibility to ramp this up fairly quickly,” said one prominent travel technology executive who asked to remain anonymous, so as not to offend any of Tres Technologies’ competitors.
Rosen has been hosting demos for test agencies, and signing up suppliers and other services [e.g. itinerary service providers] to integrate with his software, so that it will have a robust supply of travel inventory and connectivity when it launches.
He also is negotiating with major U.S. based agency networks that could lead to the migration of thousands of Trams and ClientBase users to the Tres Technologies platform over the next 12 months. “I think within a year, 47,000 users could be fully converted,” Rosen said.
As more agents migrate over to Tres Technologies, and more of the large networks compete for agency members less on basic services like back office and reporting, and more on negotiated perks, special offers, and such, advisors could be empowered to take greater control over their destiny—regardless of the crisis du jour.
“That’s what really excites me. It puts more of the future income of a travel advisor in the travel advisor’s hands because they will be able to see the growth opportunities easily, based on the data in front of them,” he said.
It’s about time.
Richard D’Ambrosio is a master storyteller who, for more than 30 years, has helped leading brands like American Express, Virgin Atlantic Airways, the Family Travel Association (FTA), and Thomas Cook Travel tell their stories to their customers, the media, and employees. A professional business coach and content marketing consultant with his own firm, Travel Business Mastermind, Richard most recently has worked with The Travel Institute, Flight Centre USA and a variety of host agencies and tour companies, helping entrepreneurs refine their brands and sharpen their sales and marketing skills. Richard writes regularly about retail travel agencies, social media & marketing, and business management.