New survey shows optimism is high for future travel, with travellers willing to be tested & tracked

3 ways agents can stay successful and some good ‘by the numbers’ stats for the trade

This story originally ran in the October 18, 2018 issue of Travelweek magazine. To get Travelweek delivered to your agency for free, subscribe here.

TORONTO — Travel agents have made it through the Internet and OTAs, commission caps and cuts and direct booking channels. They’re not only surviving, they’re thriving. So what should a travel agent do to stay successful in the years ahead?

Ask for referrals, specialize and know how to upsell.

Roger Block, President, Travel Leaders Network says agents who do these three things are putting themselves on a path to more bookings and stronger sales.

“Most people find it very challenging to ask for referrals,” says Block, in town recently for TL Network’s Markham and Toronto Fall Regionals and Regional Mixers, now known as P.E.A.K.

Anyone who’s ever asked for a referral for their services knows how awkward it can be. Agents can feel like they’re tooting their own horn, or that they’re imposing, or worry that the client will turn them down, jeopardizing the relationship.

And it’s not just Canadian agents – polite, humble Canadians – who are shy about asking for referrals. The same is true for American agents, says Block.

But referrals are key to building a successful business, even though, as he acknowledges, “the vast majority of agencies don’t do it.”

An incentive can work wonders. Christine James, VP, Canada for TL Network, part of Travel Leaders Network, says she knows an agent who gives clients who bring in new business credit towards their next trip. “Refer a friend, earn credit.”

Specializing is key too. James says one agent, who listed herself as a Costa Rica specialist in her profile on TL Network’s B2C site site, wound up with a group booking for 80 people to Costa Rica.

Block says agents need to perfect the art of upselling too.

It’s not a hard sell, he says. “It’s suggestive selling.”

Looking into his crystal ball, Block says that with global economic cycles being what they are, we’re headed for a downturn, and that might be a wake up call for agents who have enjoyed several years of booming sales after the post-2008 recovery. When the economy contracts, “travel spend will drop”, says Block, but only by 1 to 1.5%, he predicts.

No matter what the client’s travel budget is, travel agents still have an edge on OTAs, he adds. Especially in these times of bespoke travel and the seemingly insatiable desire for one-of-a-kind travel experiences – and the social media posts to prove it. “More and more people are looking for unique experiences. And that is something that is really hard to find online. It’s so much easier to call someone who’s an expert.”

Block’s colleague, Steve McGillivray, Chief Marketing Officer of the Travel Leaders Group, has some interesting thoughts on the future of retail travel too, and some heartening stats.

McGillivray delivered the keynote address at the CTO’s State of the Industry Conference in The Bahamas earlier this month.

While many of his numbers skewed to the U.S., it’s safe to say the figures could be even higher in Canada, where more people book through travel agents in part thanks to consumer protection and travel funds in Ontario, Quebec and B.C.

According to McGillivray, a recent Phocuswright survey says travel agents are the largest travel distribution segment representing 30% of total travel sales.

He adds: “Phocuswright says travel agents sell two-thirds of all cruises and 68% of all package tours. MMGY data suggests that travel agents sell 75% of all international long haul travel from the U.S. And CLIA reports 82% of luxury cruises are sold through advisors.”

Once seen as the bane of a travel agent’s existence, the Internet was in fact “one of the best things that happened to travel agents,” he suggests.

“Travel consumers are overwhelmed with information and need an expert to cut through the clutter. When planning a trip, travellers are looking for cost, convenience and customization. And to add a fourth element, they are seeking third-party validation of their choices. Vacation time is precious, and no one wants to waste it, so they are turning to experts.”

Most agents have heard – or experienced themselves – that Millennials are seeking out travel agents. But they might not know why. Trust and time, says McGillivray. “Millennials grew up with the Internet and they know not to trust everything they see. So they go straight to the experts they can trust, travel agents who can help them find the perfect Caribbean beach to take those Instagram photos on.”

Meanwhile, time “has become the commodity of this generation. It used to be fun to sit up past midnight searching 20 websites for cheap deals, but now, Millennials have demanding careers, families and children. They are too busy and would much rather have an expert guide them.”

Travellers who use an agent spend more overnights at the destination than those who don’t, and their average daily spend is 60% higher than people who don’t use travel agents, he adds.

Going back to Block’s point about upselling, McGillivray says many travel agents have mastered the art, and sell up better than anyone.

“Ask any cruise executive who sells the top of the ship and the answer will be: travel advisors!”

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