Scott Koepf MCC, CTC
Senior Vice President of Sales
Travel elicits passion. Suppliers, travel agents and of course the traveler are all passionate about travel. However passion must have a purpose and in some cases travel agents may have lost sight of what that purpose is. An agent’s attitude, motivation and passion must have a focus. Unbridled passion is not enough to be successful.
Travel itself evokes such wonderful emotions and enthusiasm that it is easy to be passionate about it. However, as good as that sounds, that may be the primary problem we have to overcome! Quite simply, some travel agents seem to be forgetting what business they are really in: retail sales. It is the role of the travel agent to reach the customer (retail) and fulfill a need/desire (sales). It is that simple two-part process that requires passion, but that passion may have been diverted into other areas:
Passionate about Product: It might seem like heresy that I would claim that agents are too passionate about the very product that is their livelihood. However, if the travel agent’s role is reaching customers and fulfilling their needs/desires (once again, retail sales) then our primary passion must be for those customers! I can already read the e-mails from the agents who have memorized more product information than humanly possible: “How dare you infringe on my right and ability to learn everything about every product and passionately regurgitate that information back into y customers’ faces…” or something like that. But don’t misunderstand me. I am not suggesting that product knowledge is not necessary or important, because it is. What is more important is what to do with that knowledge – reach and fulfill customers’ needs.
If you added up all of the training programs, supplier visitations, trade articles and materials along with specialist certifications, the emphasis on product knowledge is an industry standard. Agents are given more and more product knowledge while education on what to do with it is an afterthought. Unfortunately, because all of us in this business love our product so much, we just focus on it too much.
If travel agents are the front line contact to customers, then we need to look at other retail sales environments. As an example, Nordstrom department stores revolutionized a dying retail concept by finding employees who were trained on product, but passionate about their customers. As in our business, they know they have great product, but so do their competitors (sound familiar?). So, Nordstrom differentiated by focusing on one-to-one relationships. It was unheard of to empower the salespeople to build relationships in a department store environment that historically had relied on product displays and people trained to run cash registers. But by putting people before product, they changed an entire retail segment.
Passionate about the Internet: If product has been the emphasis for the last twenty years, the internet has tried to steal the focus for the last fifteen years. Once again, if we compile all the articles, speeches, and workshops over the last fifteen years, travel agents would logically come to one conclusion: make money with your website or die. Well, I hate to play the grim reaper, but if you believe that, say your goodbyes. Once again, let me qualify my statements. The internet is an amazing media channel and it has changed our world in unfathomable ways. Therefore, we need to study it, know how consumers use it, and most importantly know how to compete not only in it, but against it. Should travel agents have websites? Absolutely. But websites should be used primarily as a channel of communications with existing clients and to provide those clients a supplement, not a replacement of, the travel agent him/herself.
The hype surrounding this issue has been fascinating to watch with so many extolling the virtues of capturing this media channel and so few actually doing it. As a perfect example, I was at a supplier executive panel at a trace show where all of the executives were in lock step about how agents must have websites and focus their efforts there. After it was clear that the entire panel had made is point about how agents need to be ‘players’ on the internet, someone finally asked the travel agent audience if they had websites. The vast majority raised their hands. So it appeared they had been preaching to the choir until someone asked “how many of you are generating most of your business from the internet?” Only three or four hands went up, so the panel quickly changed tunes from ‘get in the game’ to ‘spend more time, money and efforts in the game so you can be like those three or four’.
Huh? Without the surrounding hype, this whole approach to the internet would be laughable. Imagine if the same panel had the same conversation about old school yellow page advertising? Many advertisers in the game, but only three or four made real money there. Why? Simple. They were the first ones to get in with big dollars and seniority. This should sound failiar as the pattern is exactly the same for the internet. The early entrants and/or those with the biggest budgets control the media and any expectation to compete there may be misplaced. When I opened my first cruise-only agency 30 years ago, I had to convince the yellow page company to add a cruises section. Of course that first year my quarter page ad was highly successful, but guess what? In a few years, as it fell to the back of the section behind full page, full color ads that I could not afford, it lost its drawing power. But should travel agents not have websites? No, just like the yellow pages, travel agents should be there but not with an expectation of finding new customers, but simply because it is an accepted media where your absence might be detrimental. There are usually many full page, full color ads in the yellow pages, but usually only one or two reap rewards. The rest simply were too late and are spending thousands in a crowded media with little or no results. In addition, travel agents need to understand the ramifications of their involvement in the internet. If agents entice and motivate their clients to go to their website to book, they are in essence sending them to a mall full of travel agents (have you googled “cruise” lately?) and in that mall are anchor stores that have much prettier and more sophisticated displays with better prices. If agents train consumers to bypass their very existence, the consumers will eventually end up at the ‘anchors’ or ‘factory direct outlets’ (the suppliers’ own websites with booking engines). It is you, the travel agent in flesh and blood that is of value to both the supplier (because you can passionately reach customers they can’t) and the customer (because you can build a relationship with them and add value to what is otherwise simply a transaction).
Passionate about Home: If Passion for Product has had a thirty year run and the internet a twenty year run, then the home-based travel agent hype has had a fifteen year run that continues to pick up steam. I am not only a believer in this trend, but a huge proponent of its growth. However, once again the hype of being home-based has started to overshadow where the passion of travel agents should be. For many years, we have seen a significant decrease in brick and mortar travel agency locations. There are many reasons given as to why this has occurred, not the least of which is the home based trend. But that sounds like the age old question about the chicken and the egg. Did agencies close and then decide to go home based, or did they decide to go home based and then close? It is a subtle, but very big distinction. In either case I think the primary reason most brick and mortars have closed and will close is that they never operated in the business they were really in. That’s right, retails sales. There is still, and will be a huge opportunity for retail agencies that design their stores and operate them in a retail fashion. I often hear of the great benefit of not paying rent as a reason to be home based. It is not the cost of the rent that is the problem; it is the way that space is used that is the problem. A good retail location is an excellent way to reach customers and add value. So the growth of the home based travel agent should not be seen as a replacement of retail locations, but in some ways a facilitator to eliminating brick and mortar locations that should close because they are not using their location properly.
Being passionate about your location is great if it leads to more sales. However, this is where I see a problem occurring in the home based segment as it continues to grow. As an example, I have provided sales seminars at a number of home based agent events and have asked attendees why they are home based. Almost all of the responses are the same:
“I love being home.”
“I love the convenience.”
“I love the commute.”
“I have flexible hours so I can play with my [dog, cat, kids, and husband, whatever…].
” And my personal favorite: “I love working in my pajamas!”
So, in other words, agents are working at home for all the wrong reasons since none of those reasons are a benefit to the customer. Your customers will not be impressed or book with you because you can roll out of bed, crawl to your desk, and call them while still in your foot jammies with the lambies on them! Remember, the role of the travel agent is to reach customers and fulfill their desires/needs, not to fulfill ours. This may sound like fire and brimstone against the sins of home based agents, but once again, as in the previous trends, what starts as a pursuit of passion with benefits to the consumer, gets corrupted and our passions get misplaced. The reason the home based agent phenomenon is not just a passing fad is that they have a tremendous advantage (and it is not lower overhead or comfy pj’s!). It takes time and focus to both reach and fulfill the desire and needs of customers (the agent’s role should be pretty clear by now). Suppliers and consumers do not need thousands more websites offered by home based agents who think the internet is the road to easy money. Suppliers need travel agents to talk with individuals and groups eyeball to eyeball. Going to clients where they are comfortable, visiting groups at their meetings, and interacting with people in your neighborhood is still a wide open opportunity and that is where the passion should be focused.
Passionate about People: The role of the travel agent is not only imperative to the growth and success of our industry, but also holds great promise if the agent’s passion has purpose. The key is not to let the trends or hype of the day distract you from the value you bring – providing guidance on a one-to-one basis with customers.
If travel agents know everything there is to know about product, but are not enthusiastically passionate about their customers, they will be replaced by a much better information source – the internet. And, if travel agents put their focus on the internet, they will eventually teach their clients to bypass them and lead customers to the few entities who own that space. And if travel agents focus on why where they work is good for them instead of focusing on how they can touch more people with their passion, then the need for travel agents will diminish rapidly.
If travel agents take the time and focus on their passion for customers, then success is eminent. Passionate enthusiasm about customers cannot be researched, automated, or replicated and will sell more travel in and of itself than any other trend to come along.