Most of us have encountered the “do-it-yourselfer” who researches and books everything themselves online. Estimates are that as high as 61% of some demographic groups at least research travel online and a lower percentage, but still significant at 43%, book some travel online. Most who book online will give “price” as their key reason for turning to the internet. Other reasons cited are efficiencies, instant gratification, and, quite simply, no pre-existing relationship with a travel consultant.
The phenomenon of self-bookers is important for travel professionals to study and understand. As agencies, we spend a great deal of time competitively slicing up that segment of the population who already use travel agents, developing aggressive, competitive strategies. We view the agent down the street, the giant online website, or even the other agents in the office as competitors. The actual fact of the matter is, however, that the greatest competition most travel agents face is the pre-conception that travel advisors are passé or out of touch with new ways of researching or booking travel.
The real competitive battle is to get potential clients to use a travel advisor rather than doing it themselves or, worse yet, doing nothing. Travelers face three options – use an agent, do it themselves, or stay at home. By focusing on the competition with other agencies, you ignore a large segment of the market. If you market aggressively and implicitly criticize the other agents, you in fact strengthen the subliminal message to some potential clients that perhaps no one can deliver adequate service. If you expressly criticize the “do-it-yourself” attitude, you implicitly criticize many potential clients and strengthen their resolve to book their own travel. Although this group of internet researching potential clients may seem to be the least amenable to using a travel agent, consider for a moment the real reasons they are choosing to go it alone. They may be one of the largest new markets available to you.
Forget aggressive competitive techniques that negatively criticize other agencies or online possibilities. Instead, go positive: focus on professionalism, word of mouth, and public relations. Let the newspapers and “buzz” work in your favor. There are enough stories about the perils of online booking to make most people wary of planning anything more than a commodity trip online. Help demystify travel consulting by encouraging the public to better understand what you do and how the traveler benefits from your services.
The traveler who uses the internet feels empowered. Information is readily available to them without the need to interact with a third party. However, the more complicated the itinerary, the less comfortable the internet researcher feels. It, therefore, behooves most agencies to focus on the areas where they can add the greatest value – high-touch travel. Encourage clients to do some preliminary research. Become comfortable with the idea that clients are going to be inherently better informed and educated when they come to you for advice. Open your doors to the consumers who like to do research by adjusting your marketing messages to encourage their participation with you rather than criticizing the process. Write an article for your blog or a press release about how your agency has integrated the clients who like to research into your practice, and how that move has made you the agency of preference for this demographic.
Although clients will give “price” as their key reason for doing their own bookings, I suspect the real word for which they are searching is “value.” The risk of the internet is that it makes a cynic of everyone – we know the price of everything but the value of nothing. The failing of the internet is that it can not establish value. This is where your expertise is truly unique as a competitive asset. You know how to match a client with a particular tour operator, you know which tour operators are excellent and which are not. You know the intricacies of complicated itineraries. You know your destinations and logistics. Put them all to good use by making your personal assets accessible and known to those consumers that use the internet.
Your real competition is inertia and ignorance. Plan accordingly.