TORONTO — Travel is an industry based on relationships, and few are more important than the one between Travel Agent and Supplier. Ask any agent and they’ll tell you that working with a reputable, honest and loyal tour operator is paramount to their business, and they’ll easily fire off names of companies they regard as preferred and trusted.
So when this valued relationship breaks down for any number of reasons, the damage can be irreparable. But Collette, which has a reputation for slighting travel agents in the past, is hoping this isn’t the case. After a short period in its nearly 100-year-old history during which it often poached group business from agencies, the family-owned company is now doing its best to right its wrongs and reverse the damage it has done to its retail relationships.
“We are aware of the perception that Collette has taken groups from agencies in the past. I want to make very clear that this is not our policy. In the past we may have brought a larger percentage of groups directly to Collette, but now we are really focused on working through the travel agent,” said Doug Patterson, who was appointed President, Canada of Collette earlier this year.
Patterson tells Travelweek that groups at one time brought in the vast majority of Collette’s business (it’s just shy of 50% today), thanks in large part to BDMs who sought them out. This, however, sometimes led them to bring groups directly to the company, essentially cutting out agents in the process. It was never an official company policy, says Patterson, who also noted that the last incidence of ‘poaching’ he has found dates back to 2008. “Since then, our commitment to the retail channel has been significantly enhanced. Agents are vital to our success – 98% of our bookings come from agents.”
But are Patterson’s assurances a case of too little, too late? Absolutely not. Collette is proving that it’s not just talking the talk, but also walking the walk to the tune of agent-specific directives. He says that although the company is still searching out groups, when it does find them it now takes the necessary steps to match them with local agents.
“If it’s an independent booking or a group, we will make a concerted effort to recognize if they’ve worked with an agent in the past, and if they’re planning on doing so, we will make a recommendation of somebody in their particular area,” he says. “We believe in the agent community. They provide a great service and we believe they should be rewarded for that.”
Even more, Collette’s commitment to agents can be measured in dollars; according to Patterson, over the past five years, the company has brought over $10 million worth of group business back to agents. “I would say that’s a strong commitment,” he adds.
To hammer home the message even further, Collette made the decision to not participate in the discount arena and work with agencies that slash its product prices.
“If a retailer wants to discount our product, we will not work with them, whether they’re OTA or bricks and mortar. It was an expensive move walking away from accounts like this, but we believe our product stands on its own and our customers deserve the level of service provided by a dedicated travel professional,” Patterson says.
Agents, so it seems, has started to take notice and are putting their faith back in Collette. One Ontario agent, who wished to remain anonymous, tells Travelweek that she’s willing to give the company another chance after it directly email marketed all members of a group her agency had booked a few years ago.
“I know that the Collette rep we have here has been trying to push the fact that they are changing their ways and that things have been on an upswing,” she says. “They have been pushing everything back to the travel agent and are trying to rebrand themselves in a favourable light to agents.”
On Collette’s direct marketing efforts, Pablo Keselman of Milton, Ontario, who has over 30 years of experience as a travel agent, chalks it up to simply a difference in culture.
“Unlike here in Canada, American-based companies tend to bombard you with emails and are very aggressive as far as sales go, either by sending things directly to clients or sending too many emails to agents. This overloading of direct mail and brochures is a cultural thing; that’s just the way they operate in the U.S.,” he says.
Keselman, who has a $20,000 group booking with Collette that’s ready for payment soon, says that he’s never had a negative impression of Collette. In fact, he’s always appreciated how the company has been upfront about their marketing tactics.
“Collette certainly uses the database of my clients, who will get direct mail from them from time to time. However, when they send direct mailing to clients with a discount number or coupon attached, if they’re loyal to their agent, the assumption is they’ll call their agent to book,” he says. “I have absolute respect for Collette’s product and this has always been the case. They have a BDM that’s proactive, they will hold space for groups, and they will print your logo on marketing materials to send to clients. They’re a lot more trustworthy than they were in the past because they’ve made it clear that they want to work with us.”
Patterson, who confirms that the call-to-action on all Collette marketing materials today directs consumers back to agents, knows that misperceptions are hard to overcome and that people have long memories. So when asked what reassurances the company can give to agents that they won’t repeat ‘sins’ of the past, he is unequivocal in his answer.
“Let me put it as clearly as possible – Collette will not attempt to take any group from your agency. In fact, if unfortunate circumstances arise and a direct relationship exists where an agency partner is no longer involved, we will pay the agency partner 100% of its commission due on that group and take any necessary corrective actions,” he says.
And to those who are still skeptical despite his reassurances?
“Call us on it. Mystery shop us. If an agent feels like this is happening let us know about it. We will always make it right.”
Doug Patterson is also the star of Travelweek’s latest video series. See how else Collette is looking to work with agents: