Outside of “pent-up demand,” the most overused and misused phrase in the travel industry right now has to be “ideal client.” I hear it all the time from suppliers and destinations, as well as marketing gurus and consultants—including yours truly.
Though, seldom do I hear these two words taught or described in a way where a travel entrepreneur can go and figure out who this magical persona is. Also, frequently left unsaid is what do these “ideal clients” want to achieve on their next vacation, and how can a travel advisor like you uniquely attract them?
This issue of defining your ideal client is made more difficult right now because despite the Green Shoots indicating a 2021 travel resurgence, for the near-term the pandemic has shrunk the pool of prospects willing to book the kinds of trips travel advisors find most profitable.
Over the last few years, the Family Travel Association found through its proprietary research that 15-20% of families used a travel advisor at least once over three years. The MMGY 2019 Portrait of the American Traveler (POAT) survey said 16% of travelers used a travel advisor for at least one trip in the last year. (At its peak in 2016, 19% of MMGY POAT respondents said they had used an advisor.)
Let’s say for example that, pre-pandemic, 100 people who wanted to book an all-inclusive in Mexico might pass by your booth at a travel expo. Only 15 or so would stop in, because they might be interested in handing off their travel to an expert like you.
Today, that 100 people at the trade show might only be 60 because of the number of travelers who temporarily have pulled themselves out of the vacation market. The ones interested in working with you might be only 8-9 of that number (60 multiplied by 0.15).
That means you need to do one of two things—or both—to maximize your income during these times: grow the total number of prospects who see you, and/or close more of them when they “meet” you.
How then to go about this? First by ensuring that you understand who is most likely to book with you and doubling down on your outreach to places where they are likely to see you.
Not Everyone is a Prospect, and That’s Okay
I’m a member of a traveler fan page for a very popular Caribbean all-inclusive resort. A few weeks ago, someone asked the thousands of members on the page if they had worked with an agent and, if so, does working with agents “get better rates.”
Of the 40 or so responses, ten fans in that group told the original poster to book through their credit card’s travel call center or go through the Hyatt site, so they could use their card points. One said book through an OTA. Someone said “book on your own.” And seven said book through Costco—for all the reasons you’ve come to expect.
Only six fans recommended booking through an agent.
Notice something? Those six consumers who recommended the original poster work with an agent represent 15% of the 40 respondents. (Where have we heard that ratio before?)
Look. Suppliers are always going to have multiple channels to distribute their product, and they will use them to offer prices and amenities you thought were exclusive to you. Sometimes those offers might be even better than you can get, if some of the commission is refunded by the channel owner to the client in a form like resort credits.
I am not excusing, nor condemning, the suppliers for setting up this system this way. They own their business. If they are running it intelligently, this strategy must work for their P&L—even if it means pissing you off.
The key to your success, and overall happiness, is to understand why the suppliers do this and which types of consumers book through those channels. Then use that knowledge to target the remaining 15% who might be interested in working with you.
Who Is Ideal for You?
Once you’ve licked your wounds from your suppliers’ business choices, step back and ask yourself what types of vacationers make up the 15% of the market that still wants to work with a travel advisor. And remember, that percentage may start growing again due to the complexity COVID has introduced to travel planning and vacation logistics, and thus the consumer’s need for you.
For example, in the fan page discussion I mention above, when one person recommended booking through Costco, the original poster responded saying she had “seen mixed reviews (or really bad reviews)” on the transfer service Costco uses. She needed someone experienced to help her feel confident about that portion of her trip.
Another fan posted: “We always work with a travel agent when we leave the country, and we were SO GLAD we did last March. We had a lot of communication and they were constantly monitoring changes. The rates are the same, but you get their expertise and someone watching out for you.”
And yet, another noted they were at this property when the pandemic hit and the island was shutting down. Her travel advisor “got us on the next flight home and got our refund for the unused part of our trip.”
One of the things we can say about people who want to book with “AN ADVISOR” (not necessarily you) is that they want handholding, safety, and security. Maybe they were burned by booking direct in the past. Maybe, like these fans, they want to know someone is looking out for them.
But what we also know is that of the percentage of prospects who are mostly concerned with minimizing their cash outlay on their vacation, the bulk of those likely aren’t going to be moved by your claim you can get parity pricing or better. That’s a losing battle.
Long-term, Suppliers and Destinations Need to Become Better Partners
I’m not letting suppliers off the hook. So many of them do an awful job of communicating to you about their different distribution channels. It’s like they’re afraid to be honest and transparent with you sometimes. MOST IMPORTANTLY, so many of them do a poor job creating unique value for travel advisors to own the 15% of the market that would book with you, and then coaching you through how to do that effectively.
Next week’s column is going to focus on our supplier friends. Like I’ve been saying since September—no good crisis should go to waste. The travel distribution ecosystem was broken for travel advisors long before COVID came along. Suppliers own the inventory, so fixing this ecosystem and making you their true partner rests primarily on their shoulders.
After recently surveying 381 tenured travel advisors (most of whom have more than ten years’ experience), I can tell you, there is a lot to be fixed, and I have some ideas about how to do it.
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.