So, here I am…..I am a travel agent/tour operator/DMO…..what the heck is going on? I see the world changing around me. I see consumers finding new channels to go direct. I see many competitors getting more sophisticated and I see myself being disintermediated. What do I need to do to stay in the game?
Life used to be less complicated. Business used to be less complicated. There were less information and distribution channels. I knew my customer.
We have witnessed the transfer of power to the consumer. Actually, it was always there but the consumer didn’t know it.
We see the Boomers getting older and younger generations growing up in a digital connected world, becoming more sophisticated and “iTravel” savvy. We are again at a crossroads. Which way do we turn? Well, let’s look at the facts.
Is disintermediation a reality or is it a fear based myth leading to a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Let’s look at reality and data. In a recent ASTA study (undertaken by my friend Steve Cohen – Insights guru at MMGY), they found that 59 percent of Millennials, 53 percent of Gen Xers, and 58 percent of boomer leisure travelers, who had used travel agents, stated that vacations planned through travel agents were better than those organized without their assistance. Importantly, those same travelers that use an agent actually travel more (4.7 trips on average) than average consumers.
There was better news for Travel Agents. The use of traditional travel agents appears to be growing. According to the survey, 13 percent of U.S. travelers used a traditional travel agent in the past year, which is up from 11 percent a few years ago. Knowledge coupled with convenience are key factors in using agents. Knowledge and convenience are strong building blocks for value creation.
I started my career as a travel agent, and later earning my CTC. I have been a tour operator as well. (I worked as a travel agent with Thos Cook, and ran the Walt Disney Travel Company at Disneyland). I learned from both companies that “value” was a key driver in the success of any business. Not the lowest price but highest value. What is the value and how is it measured?
Value is a theme that will continue to resonate. Regardless of price, we all want value. The critical task in today’s environment is defining the word “value”. We, as travel producers, can’t tell a consumer what the value is. Consumers tell us what and where the value is. We just need to look, listen and respond. We need to gain insight on the consumer’s changing needs and ensure we are in a position to sense and serve. It reminds me of a great hockey player – playing the puck to where the player will be, not where he is.
It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that information on travel and destinations abound. If you ‘Google’ Orlando Travel you will receive over 350 million results in under a half second. To a consumer it is overwhelming, confusing and perplexing.
So how does a Travel Agent leverage the perplexities and confusion :
- Become the Convenient Authority
One of the most important elements in any business is how one is perceived. Being recognized as the recognized authority will build business. Ask for recommendations. Share your success stories. You are more convenient that an OTA. You are not anonymous. You have a name and a face. You have been there. You have the answers to complicated questions. You are there if something goes wrong. You are the authority.
- Leverage the Experience
Insights gained from a very recent TripAdvisor research paper reported that today’s vacationer is looking for an experience when planning their vacation. This experience is driven by a desire to discover more about the culture of the destination. The experience factor ranks as high as the price factor. Experience divided by price equals value. We need to inspire travel, to intrigue clients, tease and conjure up an alluring destination based on your insight gained from your customers.
The moment you publish a website you become, well, you become a publisher. This means your site must never get stale. It must be fresh, intriguing, teasing. The goal is to engage. Is there a clear call to action? Do you have Specials and Last Minute deals. Use your supplier relationships to get great fresh content. They are eager to help you. Your website is your store front. Think of it that way. Maintain your curb appeal.
- Knowledge Broker
You must become the font of all travel knowledge. Where to go, when to go, what to pack, how to pack, expected weather, what to see and do, …in fact your are the walking talking human being that doesn’t hide behind a computer screen. Flout your knowledge. Blog your knowledge. Get on your local radio with tips and tricks. Write an article for your local newspaper. Get blogging. Create a Bucket List. Strut your stuff.
The reason social websites like Trip Advisor have grown leaps and bounds is that they have become part of our circle of trust. It is a community site driven by (mostly) consumers. You need to represent that sense of trust. How do you build trust? Belief in yourself is key, but remember you are communicating to others. You will need to display integrity, intent (how you work and interact with customers), skill sets, and reputation. All of this builds your credibility and ultimately trust.
Jack of all Trades – Master of None is figure of speech used in reference to a person who is competent with many skills, but is not necessarily outstanding in any particular one. Don’t just stay alive but thrive by owning a niche. Large Tour Operators have done a great job in creating smaller niche brands. I salute Tauck Tours (founded in 1925!) who have created niche partnerships with filmmaker Ken Burns, as an example, and created experience and cultural based tours with topics that include the Civil War, Jazz, National Parks but all with that special Tauck touch. Tauck also launched a new river cruise boat in Switzerland but with a focus on a smaller number of passengers. Less is more.
Determine your area of expertise. Cruises – large ship, small ship and river cruise, skiing, Europe, faith based, sports, educational, theme parks, national parks, all inclusive, Caribbean, Mexico, family, rail journeys, safaris, eco tourism, foodie, houseboats, honeymoons, and the list continues. Learn your product better than anybody else. Lean on your Tour Operator partners as well. They have much to give, share and contribute.
- Definition of Insanity
The definition of insanity is a well known question and answer. The definition is (if you have been caste off on a desert island) continuing to do the same stuff but hoping for different results. It takes courage to make change. It is a risk taking exercise. It is not for the faint of heart.
My recommendation is to try something different on a small scale. Consider it a test. Your own Petri dish project. Make sure you have your measurement criteria in place. Learn fast. If it fails nix the project and try something new. Keep repeating until you find the successes you are looking for.
So, in closing; look up and down any Main Street USA, there are so many small businesses that do very well. Everyone of them has an online competitor. They succeed in providing a personal service not found online. They aren’t just alive but they thrive by simply leveraging what an online agency cannot provide.