Travel advisors are still faced with many challenges and opportunities in the aftermath of the pandemic. The challenges are readily solvable and will hopefully strengthen our industry, but some of the solutions may raise the hackles of those invested in the status quo. One of the most significant challenges is—despite months of complaints—communicating with travel providers on the phone or via the web.
Difficulties in communicating is not only the fault of the airlines, cruise lines, and hotel properties. Nearly all have done an excellent job posting the information online that their telephone reps provide over the phone. Still, most travel advisors are more comfortable speaking with the reps and buying travel over the phone.
Other industries have faced the same problems, and they usually solve them by:
- Hiring more telephone reps, especially those with years of experience.
- Providing digital callbacks.
- Ensuring that online systems are easy to navigate.
Hiring More Telephone Reps, Especially Those with Years of Experience
This is typically successful when calls are answered within a few minutes by a live representative at least 12×7 in all US time zones. This, in turn, means ditching corporate call centers and having the reps operate out of their homes. Luckily 2022 is a perfect time to do this, since many workers will happily work out of their homes for the foreseeable future and secure PCs with large screen monitors cost less than $3,000. This will also increase opportunities for equity, since age and location are no longer conditions for hiring.
Apple Computer is the best example of effective telephone communication. It is hard to find anything to complain about with Apple Care. It provides daily services that includes an initial screening of calls, passing requests to agents with the needed training, and providing Level II Expert advisors when the phone reps are stumped. The reps are also equipped with online scripts covering nearly every conceivable problem and procedure.
Travel companies will likely opt to provide Apple-level telephone support for basic services such as recommendations, purchases, and changes. When it comes to supporting more complex or time-consuming problems, many companies may insist that they come through travel advisors who will charge a consulting fee for taking over these more complicated bookings. If the travel advisors can’t solve the problems, they will be empowered to refer guests (or themselves) to Level II Experts. These will work with the travel advisors at no additional cost to the guests.
Luckily, the travel industry has two “secret weapons” that will permit guests to transition to this kind of structure and assure its success.
- First, they have the training programs of cooperative groups such as Signature and CLIA that provide travel advisors with online training and certifications like Signature Expert Select. The advanced training can be a prerequisite for the travel companies hiring Level II Experts, or giving ICs referrals for handling time-consuming or complex cases.
- Second, there are probably hundreds of experienced and already-certified travel advisors who would opt to give up their IC status to become a salaried online Level II Expert for one of the airlines, cruise lines, or large host agencies. This would permit them to remain in the travel industry, if most of their clientele disappeared during the pandemic—as well as become a nearly untapped resource for the travel industry.
These innovations needn’t require industry pacts or legislation. All it will take are some airlines or cruise lines to advertise rapid-response 800-line services that can deal with routine requests from travel advisors or the public in less than 30 minutes—including time on “hold.” Once they advertise these services, competitors that want to stay relevant will have to follow suit. The offers of free drink packages at sea or discounts on flights will pale compared to eliminating the frustration shared by advisors and guests alike when they must spend hours on “hold.” Also, for those ICs who want to rebuild their businesses, referrals from the travel industry will be the most effective way of making this a reality.
Several cruise lines have already started down this path and solved many of their telephone response problems. I’ve dealt with reservations made on Seabourn and Viking Ocean in the past few weeks. The phone service has been superior. I was generally placed on hold for less than two minutes. Their automated response systems told me how long I would likely wait for an agent, and the reps were friendly and knowledgeable.
When I posed some “Level II” issues, they either transferred me to a specialized department or gave me the phone number of another vendor I needed to call.
While it may save time for advisors and guests to book the cruise line’s air travel until phone lines are less congested, this is not always the best alternative. To travel on a cruise that leaves Sydney from Los Angeles and returns from Denpasar (Bali), Viking’s choices were Economy for about $1600 or Business Class at slightly over $8,000 pp. Both prices were around the same as charged on Expedia, but the $8,000 charge for Business Class doubled the cost of the 15-day cruise.
The problem was that Viking did not offer Premium Economy Class of any of its flights. Since both couples were elderly with various ailments, Economy was not a possibility. The first leg required at least 15 hour of flying nonstop from Los Angeles to Sydney, and the return leg at least 18 hours to fly from Bali to Los Angeles. Both couples were reluctant to spend more than 30 hours in Economy seats.
Premium Economy with extra legroom was not offered or available through Viking. This would have been ideal for these clients. It cost about $2900 through Expedia, which offered dozens of convenient flights on quality airlines such as Delta and EVA. Before booking guest on cruises requiring extensive air travel, you want to be sure that Premium Economy is available.
Providing Digital Callbacks
There’s no longer any excuse for leaving anyone, whether a potential guest or a “preferred partner” of an airline or cruise line, on hold for several hours. I’ve set a rule for myself: If I can’t get a callback within the first ten minutes, I move on to another provider or use Expedia for air reservations, and Signature or the cruise line’s travel advisor web sites for booking cruises.
If enough users refuse to wait on hold for more than a few minutes, the airlines and other travel companies that offer callbacks will score an enormous marketing coup. I suspect they will increase their market share by at least 10 percent—especially for bookings made by travel advisors. This isn’t rocket science; it’s simply a matter of companies being willing to upgrade their software and changing the way their reps answer phones.
Ensuring That Online Systems Are Easy to Navigate
The cruise and property listing companies have done an excellent job describing their offerings on their web pages and through the travel co-op websites, such as Signature and Virtuoso. Together, these provide all the data and photos a travel advisor needs. Most can also make live bookings for cruises and hotel properties for a travel advisor’s clients.
Flight planning is entirely a different matter. Unless the travel advisor can justify the cost and time needed to support a GDS system such as Sabre, they will still need to use the airlines’ phone portals. Hopefully, host agencies and travel co-ops will hire online GDS specialists to plan and book online travel for the rest of us via the phone and the web. Referring once more to Apple, an app like Apple’s Share Your Screen would be ideal.
In the meantime, Expedia is the best alternative of which I’m aware. It takes me about 20 minutes to identify the best air travel alternatives and send these to my clients to book themselves. Most clients can fill in the needed information and pay for their tickets in about the same amount of time. Or companies such as Expedia can offer online versions especially tailored to travel advisors’ needs.
Dr. Steve Frankel and his wife have cruised on most of the Seabourn, Silversea, Crystal, Azamara, Oceania, Regent, and Windstar ships. Steve is the founder of Cruises & Cameras Travel Services, LLC. He has been recognized as a “2021 Top Travel Specialist” by Conde Nast Traveler magazine and a “Travel Expert Select “by the Signature Travel Network. His specialties are luxury small-ship cruises and COVID-19 safety measures, and has a doctorate in Educational Research with minors in Marketing and Quantitative Business Analysis. He’s also earned a Certificate in Epidemiology from Johns Hopkins University. Previously, he managed qualitative and quantitative research in the private & public sectors. He’s a member of the Los Angeles Press Club, and has written 13 books and hundreds of articles. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.