A travel professional I speak with frequently called me the other day to talk about an idea for an article. She wanted to write about the need for agents to continually update their skill set in destinations, technology and sales techniques. I told the agent that I was impressed that she was so deeply interested in continuing education, and I asked her if the other travel agents in her agency felt the same way. She indicated that some did, but in general most seemed content to do things the way they had always been done, to service the clients the agency ownership put in front of them and to clock out at 5:00. I asked the agent what motivated her, and I really liked her answer: “I want to be valuable to the agency's owners. As long as I am bringing in new business and generating loyalty to the agency, I'm valuable. I take it personally."
Wow. I could not have said it better myself.
The marketing columns I write are addressed to travel professionals, not to travel agencies. While it's true that most of the time the articles suggest strategies that are applicable to an agency, in a one-to-one service business like travel consulting, everything comes down to the individual agent. A company is made up of individuals each of whom represent the company's brand in the real world. The company's culture is reflected in its employees and vice-versa.
More than fifteen years ago, Tom Peters wrote “The Brand Called You" for FastCompany magazine. The concept was simple, but profound. Each of us is our own brand. Whether in the context of a larger company or on our own, we brand ourselves by our actions, the way we dress, the opinions we hold and, ultimately, the company we keep. Further, to the degree that we promote our individual brand successfully, our own careers and the fortunes of the businesses with which we associate prosper.
Whether you are a sole practitioner or a team member of a large corporate travel agency, you are your own brand. Your contribution to the professional appearance of your agency is vital and significant. Clients don't need access to travel, they have plenty of access to travel. What they really need is access to good advice and guidance. Clients need travel professionals to assist them in getting the most out of their travels. Travel counselors who recognize that simple fact and who promote themselves that way will go far.
People buy from people and travel consulting is a relationship business. If I owned an agency today, I would scour my local community and cherry-pick the best travel agents I could find from each agency. I would give them terrific incentives for working with my agency. I would seek out the agents who cared about travel with a passion. The ones that knew how to market themselves and who pro-actively were building their client list. The ones with advanced destination courses and niche markets. The agents with great supplier relationships. I would then make stars out of each one of them. My agency's advertising would be all about the individuals in my agencies, their accomplishments and their individual capabilities to astonish their clients. I would build a team of individuals – the best of the best.
The most tangible, visible and important asset of any travel agency is its staff. The professional demeanor, activities and attitude of the individuals both at the helm and on the front lines means more to the professional appearance of your agency than anything else. Fostering an internal culture of professionalism is absolutely key to an insanely great travel agency. This was the essential insight of Hal Rosenbluth's book “The Customer Comes Second."
Develop a corporate culture in your agency that fosters personal development and growth in travel. Require each associate to carry their weight, to represent the company well and to network throughout your community. If you are a sole practitioner, look to your community connections, your volunteer efforts, the way you dress and carry yourself. Ensure that the individuals that make up the corporate body each reflect the brand message of the whole.
Businesses are called “companies" for a reason. Look to the company you keep and build your business on the most solid of foundations – its individual associates.
Richard Earls is the Publisher of Travel Research Online, an online travel industry resource dedicated to enhancing the professional lives of travel agents.