Happy Travel Agent Day! Suppliers Dish On Why Agents Matter
Open Jaw by Bruce Parkinson
It’s Travel Agent Day and the e-mail inboxes at Open Jaw are filled with press releases from suppliers professing their love for the retail distribution channel.
That’s all very nice from a PR standpoint, but the hard reality is that the relationship between travel agents and suppliers is a business one – and love doesn’t really come into it. “We respect you” doesn’t quite have the same ring, but it’s surely a more important distinction.
“For us, it’s all about respecting the channel and understanding the channel,” says Jane Clementino, Director, Agency Sales for WestJet & WestJet Vacations. “Retailers sell nearly 1/2 of WestJet’s seats and the majority of WestJet Vacations packages. That’s hugely important to us, so we focus on getting into the headspace of looking at everything through their eyes.”
“Agents are still an incredibly important part of our business,” says Duncan Bureau, V.P. Global Sales for Air Canada. “The value that agents bring is their knowledge of our network and our policies and procedures. Our customers are increasingly relying on their expertise, especially for complicated PNRs.”
The vertically-integrated Transat not only sells hundreds of thousands of packages through travel agents, but it also owns a substantial retail network. Denise Heffron, V.P. Sales & Commercial, says that in the past, sales staff didn’t talk much about that, fearing a perception that company-owned agencies would get favourable treatment. That has changed.
“Now we quite proudly talk about our retail network. I think it underscores our commitment and support for the traditional travel trade. We deal with all the major retail groups and we typically try to be as retail-friendly as possible.”
At TravelBrands, which recently successfully emerged from a potentially life-threatening financial crisis, respect is tinged with gratitude for agent support in troubled times. “The trade is absolutely essential to us,” says Nino Montagnese, Senior V.P. “We’re not a B2C company – 99% of our business is B2B and sold by retailers. They hung in with us through everything and many continued to book or called us with support. Without our retail partners, the outcome could have been very different.”
Of course there was a time just a few short years ago when many predicted the demise of the entire retail channel. Agents have adapted and evolved, and in the past year the tide has turned, with consumer media now predicting a renaissance for the role of travel advisor.
Suppliers interviewed for this story say retailers have earned the positive press.
Recently returned from a series of TravelBrands ‘thank you’ events across the country, Montagnese says agents have upped their game in recent years. “The quality of agents that came to our shows – suppliers were amazed at the engagement. Travel agents across Canada are understanding that this is a career, not a job. They are building knowledge and acting as true consultants to consumers, making sure they get what they want. It’s wonderful to see.”
“Agents are becoming more and more skilled at selling the dream, at telling the story,” says Transat’s Heffron. “People have a lot of questions when they travel and agents help them sift through the offerings and make better decisions. There are many really good specialists now, home-based and otherwise, and groups travel is really hot – and an area where skill is really required.”
Air Canada is spreading its wings, with massive international expansion as it strives to become one of the world’s top 10 airlines, says Bureau. That means lots of seats – and lots of Air Canada Vacations products for agents to sell. “Since 2010 we’ve grown the airline by an amount the size of WestJet. And our plan is to do the same thing again over the next few years,” Bureau says. “We’re going to jump from 40 to 50 million pax per year. That’s a lot of opportunity for travel agents. We’ve got strong relationships now and we’re going to be more reliant on their expertise in future.”
There are many ways in which suppliers show their support for agents. On agent feedback, WestJet Vacations brought back its paper brochure last year, and doubled its size this year. TravelBrands has also reintroduced Holiday House brochures due to agent demand.
All the companies interviewed for this story have worked hard to add agent resources to their web and booking sites, in an effort to ease the booking process. They’ve boosted sales forces and created alternative booking paths for home-based agents not on GDS. They’re listening, acting and respecting their partners.