Long ago, travel agents held the keys to the kingdom. The general public knew very little about the logistics of travel. Anyone wanting an itinerary of any complexity went to a travel agency for assistance. Travel agents had access to “hidden” resources like the GDS systems and access to travel specials not available direct to the public. But there were urban legends of people who knew tricks. Rumors of cargo ship travel, package couriers, backpackers and mysterious student discounts floated about, making many feel as though everyone in the know was traveling better and more cheaply than they. There were “secrets” out there and travel agents weren’t talking because they wanted the public to book with them.
Things are a bit different today, but the old resentment of hidden knowledge persists. The most common reason, and one that overshadows all others for do-it-yourself booking, is “empowerment”. Consumers who book on their own like the feeling that they have full knowledge of the vacation planning process. The consumer feels “in charge” with so much information accessible on the other side of their keyboard. Whether the consumer is using Google to research a destination or using Travelocity to research and book the specific components of a trip, they have immediate access to hundreds, even thousands of options to even the most obscure destination.
Travel agents know well the counter-arguments. Having information is different from understanding information. The overload of possibilities, obscure tour operators and options can overwhelm a consumer who can then make disastrous choices based on price, the pictures used on the suppliers web site or any number of reasons having nothing to do with the reliability or quality of the supplier’s operation. The supplier may be inappropriate for the travel preferences of the client. Customer service is non-existent when using an online travel site for air and hotel reservations. An airline’s site deprives you of alternative.
But these are all counter-arguments and who wants to argue?
The client who chooses to book themselves wants to feel empowered. They view the travel agent through the retail paradigm that positions the travel agent as selling travel. The retail paradigm indicates that as a retailer, the travel agent’s mission is to sell the travel commodity for as high a price as the client will possibly pay to earn a higher commission. The self-booking consumer wants to cut through all of the mystery and to “see for themselves” what is out there, to shop around and compare values and prices. Is this a scenario for a trusting, long lasting relationship?
From the outset of your relationship with any client, seek to shift the paradigm away from retail to consultant. You are not going to sell anything. You are going to coach the client into making a good buying decision. Clients are going to research on the internet. Clients will see other opportunities to purchase travel. Your reaction? GREAT! Encourage them to bring you options if they care to research along with you. You and the client can work as a team, coach. If your job is to assist the client in making a smart buying decision, then why does the source of the information matter?
Demystify travel for your clients. Empower them. Tell them how travel works, but more importantly, tell them how YOU work. Explain your expertise and how it benefits them. Explain your consortia, supplier relationships and professional resources and how it benefits them. Incorporate them fully in the process of travel planning.
Find and define your value in a way demonstrating your worth beyond mere components and logistics. Empower your clients to work with you in every planning process. The result will be a stronger client who recognizes the value you bring to the table.