I’m hoping you recognize there is a sizeable gap between what you actually do as a travel counsellor and what the public thinks you do. Most clients come to you with a serious misapprehension about your role and even their own. The public thinks you sell travel. You think you plan travel. Those 2 perceptions are so utterly mismatched it is little wonder that misunderstandings so often occur. The client too often thinks their role is to be cagey, to research around you, to withhold information, to shop your research and knowledge around on the internet and with other agencies.
The public at large misunderstands the very essence of your role. Most of the public views you as something of a retail shop, one of many possible outlets where they can buy travel. The public views all travel as a commodity. In this popular vision of the role of the travel “agent”, you have some inside knowledge of a list of “special deals” and can therefore obtain travel cheaper than the public at large. When an item is a commodity there are no differences between the same item sourced from different places. Except for one: price. With commodities, price is the only differentiator. If, in fact, the public’s vision of your role in the relationship is accurate, you had better be pretty good at what you do. The public is armed with some pretty amazing tools for finding the lowest price and some giant retailers out there can almost always source and discount any particular travel product more cheaply than you.
Let me be very clear – the vast majority of travel professionals cannot compete on price. This is actually a good thing. Why involve yourself in a low margin race to the bottom?
Let me be more clear.
If you make the decision to compete on price and do so without a full understanding of the economics and commitment involved, some aspect of your business model is badly flawed. Yet, I’ve see many travel professionals revel in winning business regardless of the cost. Here’s a pretty solid business principle – winning business is not the most important thing – making a profit is, however. Far too many travel professionals are led by a model of winning business at any cost, justifying the exercise by the promise of future business from the loss leader. Not likely. The customer won on price will be lost on price. The hapless travel agent trains clients to focus on price and then expresses surprise at the lack of “loyalty.” In fact, however, the client is not at fault, they are totally loyal to price and product, not to the relationship with the agent.
Rid yourself of any scintilla of the concept you sell travel! Your job is not to sell travel. That is an antiquated version of “travel agent” from years past. There is a reason the number of “agencies” declined so dramatically since 2001. Gone. Gone. Gone. Persist in a conversation echoing the notion you are selling travel and you are doomed to compete with Travelocity and to be shopped in every transaction. As a professional, your language and your attitudes shape those of your client. If you treat travel as a commodity, as an item of merchandise, a vendible, then so will your clients.
Change the conversation.
Your job is to help consumers make intelligent buying decisions. If you truly adopt the perspective of a consultant, why does price become the most crucial aspect of the buying process? Is that the chief consideration in any other buying decision you make? Do you buy a washer and dryer solely on the basis of price? Does brand matter, do features, warranty, service and even more emotional considerations like colour and appearance? Is price the sole determinant of the coffee you drink, the car you drive or hairdresser? My guess is the answer to each of these questions is a resounding “No.” Yet, many travel professionals are absolutely certain that the only thing that matters to their clients is price.
Here’s the thing – Travelocity is not your competition. More truly, OTAs and discounters are simply a part of the landscape of the industry. The millions of dollars spent by OTAs , discounters and suppliers on marketing actually inure to your benefit by educating the consumer and keeping “travel” top of mind. Your real competition is perception – the client who doesn’t understand what you do and how you do it, who doesn’t understand the value of your services. As a professional it is your responsibility to make yourself understood through your marketing – and that is the value and function of a good marketing plan.
Shape the conversation to speak of the experience of travel and your role as a consultant. Promoting the experience elevates the status of travel to the realm of memories and great life events. As such, price becomes far less important to the buyer. Your role as a travel planner takes on a greater importance as you educate and enlighten your clients. You become the client’s partner in a relationship, a collaborative enterprise.
Here is one way TRO is going to assist you in changing the conversation. We have produced a series of videos promoting travel and your professional role as a travel planner. We are continually adding new videos for your use. These videos are free to you to use by simply registering with TRO and going to our “Where2TravelNext” section of our site. Use these videos on your websites, your newsletters and your social media. You can even tag them with your own contact information and logo. We are creating new videos all the time. In addition, we are producing social media and website content you can use to assist you in re-defining the public’s perception of your role in the relationship.
Watch some of these videos, register and start using them in your practice to shape the conversations you have with clients.
TRO’s mission is to “enhance the lives of travel professionals.” We hope you will find these videos are true to that mission. We look forward to your suggestions for new content and your feedback.
Richard Earls is the Publisher of Travel Research Online, an online travel industry resource dedicated to enhancing the professional lives of travel agents.