A recent segment on NBC’s Today show touting the benefits of booking travel through Costco is drawing fire from the American Society of Travel Advisors, which is urging the network to give some air time to the advantages of working with traditional travel agencies.
At the same time, the trade group is drawing its members’ attention to a social media campaign by Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts that promises special perks to consumers who book direct.
Saving With Costco
Aired on Feb. 28, the Today segment showed a news correspondent booking hotel stays at two luxury resorts through Costco Travel. Calling Costco “a big travel secret that could save you and your family hundreds of dollars,” he did a cost comparison indicating that the big-box retailer provided a cheaper price than a hotel website. For another property, Costco’s deal beat Expedia, Orbitz, and Booking.com.
The trade group, which called the report “a likely pay-for-play segment,” is now asking travel advisors to send examples to firstname.lastname@example.org illustrating how they provide good deals and service to clients.
“After we collect these stories, we’re going to package them up for the Today Show and offer a different point of view,” said Erika Richter, ASTA’s director of communications. “Oftentimes we find that the mainstream media needs to be educated about who we are and the value we bring to travelers. We’re hopeful that our outreach will create an opportunity to tell the other side of the story.”
While acknowledging that many members have expressed concern over the segment, Richter said the trade group’s response “is to remind travel advisors that there will always be obstacles” and that “it would be foolish to believe that ASTA can shut down direct-book websites, big businesses like Costco, or even stop the Internet.”
Screaming at the TV
Stephen Scott, owner of Travel Hub 365 in Chicago, said he started “screaming at the TV screen” when he saw the Today segment.
“They didn’t show the consumer any balance — they just talked about what Costco can do and then cut it off,” he said. “They didn’t address the needs of the consumer who wants a low price, but also wants support.”
Scott, whose agency primarily serves professional athletes and musicians, said it’s important for advisors to explain to clients the advantages they provide, especially with support while traveling.
“They should know that Costco or a website is not going to help you out on Sunday at 10 p.m.,” he said. “If we’ve got a recording artist or athlete stuck at the airport, they can call us and make a change as they’re running to the gate.”
That being said, Scott was inspired by the Costco and Amazon business models to start his own two-tiered membership club last year to encourage loyalty. Clients can choose from a mid- or luxury-level plan that guarantees extra amenities in exchange for a monthly fee.
As the owner of a boutique home-based agency, Lisa Silvestri of Silvestri Travel in Sarasota, Fla., is annoyed but not especially worried about the discounting tactics of Costco Travel and other mega players.
“It is what it is,” she said. “There are enough travelers of all different types to go around for everyone. There are some who care only about getting the cheapest rate, but I don’t necessarily want to have these people as clients anyway.”
However, she applauds ASTA for addressing the issue.
“The TV show presented the idea that Costco is the only viable way to book travel,” Silvestri said. “They are doing the industry a disservice by putting out just one side.”
four seasons sub-Par
Also sparking ire is Four Seasons’ social media campaign, which includes recent ads on Facebook promising “complimentary perks when you book with us.”
While noting that Four Seasons is far from the only hotel company to encourage direct booking, Mark Meander, ASTA’s senior vice president of industry affairs, said the company’s track record among advisors is below par.
“According to feedback from some ASTA members, Four Seasons has not historically worked as diligently as others to tout and take advantage of the value the travel advisor plays in the hotel booking process — whether leisure- or corporate-focused, consortia or independents,” he said.
In a statement published in Travel Weekly, Four Seasons senior vice president of global sales Ben Trodd called travel advisors “important partners” and said the company is taking a “holistic approach” that “ensures we are providing guests with an enhanced booking experience that is seamless, convenient and ultimately provides the best value.”
Jennifer Doncsecz, owner of VIP Vacations, a storefront agency in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, that specializes in destination weddings, said she is noticing a trend for hotel companies to encourage direct bookings by promising special perks, usually the same perks that advisors can provide through their consortiums.
“I do know that hotels are operating under thin margins, but it’s a mistake to jeopardize relationships with advisors,” she said. “I’m not going to recommend a hotel that I think is trying to steal my clients. The little guys can fight back — Carnival Cruise Line learned this years ago.”
Scott said a better tactic is for hotel companies to advertise their promotions without specifying that consumers book direct.
“What’s great is when hotels reach out to us about an promotion and present how we can take advantage of it with our clients,” he said. “Most hotels are quite good about keeping us in the loop.”