When it comes to reaching consumers, travel agencies don't have the resources to fight against travel providers and online booking titans. They need to be more creative with the tools they do have, and many are experimenting on social media and other digital channels.
At a time when consumers are more inundated with distractions and marketing than ever before, it’s a challenge for travel companies to connect with potential customers.
It’s an especially large challenge for travel agents in particular, since most agencies have moved away from the traditional brick-and-mortar storefront into a home-based or remote model facilitated by technology. Since travel agents are more likely than ever to be working from the living room sofa or local Starbucks, how exactly can consumers find them?
So when the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) announced last month that it was releasing “a news and current affairs-style program” produced by UK company ITN Productions, it made a certain amount of sense.
The videos present a behind-the-scenes peek into how travel agencies work and what they can do for their clients. While focused on explaining how travel agencies work, and how travel agents specialize on certain topics, they aren’t particularly heavy on standard marketing that a resort or cruise brand would do. It’s almost mundane, stressing proficiency in the office over the glamor of a vacation.
The message seems to be: travel agents are still around, and want to help you plan a vacation. Why check dozens of online sources when you can simply call up an expert?
“The resurgence in the use of travel agents is an important story; important to the travel industry, travel consumers and general public,” said ASTA CEO Zane Kerby. “The primary focus of Travel Agents Taking Off is to capture that story in a credible, engaging manner one that helps inform the industry, public and consumers that use of travel agents is on the rise, that travel agents create a better travel experience, and that business booked through travel agents is an important part of the U.S. economy.”
It’s one thing to create a corny video that tries to guide consumers to agents by showing how competent they are. It’s another thing altogether to vie for traveler attention and drive engagement with a video in an extremely crowded marketplace.
“Travel agents must still be able to prove their inherent value to consumers if they want to stay ahead of the game,” reads the Skift trend report The Travel Agent of the Future. “Shrinking commissions mean that most travel agents rely on service fees as a major source of revenue. While customization and high-level support may be enough to prompt some users to pay a premium, it’s essential that the general public be made aware that travel agents can often get better deals than the DIY traveler might be able to find alone. In some cases, travel agents’ fees can pay for themselves.”
Expedia Inc., for instance, spent $218.3 million on U.S. TV advertising in 2015, trailed by Trivago which spent just under $100 million and Priceline Group which spent $86.1 million, according to iSpot.tv.
Agents can’t do it for themselves
How do travel agents themselves attempt to market their services in a marketplace inundated with calls to action from travel companies that would rather not pay agents a cut of a transaction?
“We attempt to do things for them that they can’t do for themselves,” said Stephen McGillivray, chief marketing officer of Travel Leaders Group. “They are not only the head of marketing, they are the head of sales and personnel. They don’t have the time to market for themselves on a comprehensive basis.”
Travel Leaders Group, a travel agency consortium that operates close to a dozen different travel agency brands across both the leisure and corporate travel spaces, focuses heavily on pushing qualified leads to its agents. By targeting the right potential client with the pertinent mailers and email messages, it makes life easier for agents. It also informs agents of potential leads and leaves it up to them to follow them up.
Despite the companies whose products Travel Leaders agents sell also vying for the same customers, McGillivray thinks a focus on the service aspect of the travel agent experience distinguishes the two channels.
“We know that the vast majority of [travel companies] have a direct strategy,” said McGillivray. “We know that and understand that. We know that we have relationships with those partners because we bring them value; no one sells up better than a travel agent. The [online booking sites] do a fine job but they fill the bottom of the ship, the [travel] retailer fills the top of the ship [for travel companies].”
The question remains of how exactly travel agency consortiums and their agents can present a cohesive value proposition across dozens of international brands and thousands of agencies. They may not be able to buy primetime TV advertising like Carnival Cruise Line or Club Med, but creating strong brands that offer value to travelers is a start.
Home-based agents, in particular, need the tools provided by a consortium or franchise organization in order to compete.
For Cruise Planners, a home-based franchise that’s affiliated with American Express Travel, equipping agents with robust websites and social media tools means a more cohesive brand overall. It also lets agents focus on selling and customer service, instead of their branding.
More powerful apps for customers to use, in particular, gives the traveler an experience similar to using an online booking site like Expedia, except with the ability to contact an agent directly to resolve issues.
“Cruise Planners travel agents have customizable websites, social media channels and mobile apps [while] our strategic marketing materials are incorporated into all of these – using traditional and digital media,” said Cruise Planners COO Vicky Garcia. “We find some of our most successful marketing is when we couple direct mail with digital media, and specifically focus on the experience of the ship or destination, it’s not just about a ship or a hotel, or even price; people want to create memories and we focus on bringing that to life in our marketing for our franchise owners.”
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Photo credit: Travel agents are experiencing a slight rebound, but their marketing is still fragmented and lacking. A still from ASTA's Travel Agents Taking Off shows the trade group's fake news approach. ASTA / ASTA