Top 20 things every travel agent should do right now, online and offline

NB: This is a guest article by Brian Tan, founder and CEO of Zicasso, an online luxury travel referral service that connects consumers with the top travel specialists.

In recent months, some industry research reports found that more consumers are now inclined to use a good travel agent, reversing a downward trend.

That’s good news for the offline agent industry and certainly there are many reasons for optimism.

However, the travel agent industry continues to be a challenge, with very low average annual incomes and almost no top young talent joining the industry. Yet, there are still those who perform much better than the rest.

As CEO of Zicasso, it’s been part of my job to find these top performers, partner with them, coach them, and make them even better performers.

Based on my interactions with them and analysis of thousands of traveler-and-travel-specialist interactions on Zicasso, I’ve put together a list of 20 useful tips for travel agents.

The ideas in the list are things that every agent can do – right now – in order to adapt to and thrive in today’s environment, in which travelers want personalized attention, good value, and the convenience of the internet.

1. Specialize

Pick a few destinations or activities and resolve to be a better expert at them than anyone else. Consumers now have access to so much travel information, particularly at their fingertips via the Internet that they have themselves become “generalist travel agents.”  When they seek help, they’re seeking a true specialist.

2. Personalize

Differentiate yourself from DIY, self-service online solutions – and instead give consumers highly personalized service, recommendations, etc., right from your very first interaction with them — whether online, by phone or in-person.

3. Develop a repertoire of unique experiences and special access

It’s all about selling experiences. The more unique, the more value you’re adding.  The more you can get clients access to special events or people, the more differentiated you are.

4. Be complex

Consumers can book the simple trips themselves (e.g. point-to-point trips such as Seattle to Las Vegas). Travelers really need agents for complex trips (e.g. longer international trips or cruises).  Your energy and specialization should be on these complex trips.

5. Go upmarket

Segment the market into two traveler types: Those with more money than time, and those with more time than money.  Agents can only compete for the former segment’s business.  Travelers with more money than time value purchasing a travel agent’s expertise and ability to handle every aspect of the trip.

6. Work with net rates rather than take commission

Especially for custom tours, agents should consider getting net rates from suppliers and marking them up rather than taking commission. This gives pricing flexibility and better cash flow, and reduces the hassle of collecting commission.

7. Constantly do a self-check: Am I delivering the best value?

The market’s constantly changing. For all your products and services that you offer, are you getting competitive rates?  Do you have a variety of strategies to get your clients the most value?

8. Master your pitch

Have you perfected your pitch if clients ask: “Tell me about yourself and your agency,” or “What makes you different from other agents?”  What are the top three messages in your pitch?  Memorize them.

9. Brush up on “trusted advisor” sales skills

It’s a consultative sales job: Most agents can sell a lot more if they can be perceived as a trusted advisor. This means relationship-building and trust-building skills rather than pushy sales skills.

10. Develop a trusted reputation/brand

Get yourself or your agency written up in national media or at least your local newspaper.  Join the BBB.  Get clients to write you endorsements on LinkedIn.  Build your reputation with real traveler reviews on a referral service.

11. Have a good website

Many agents have websites that do them a disservice.  Agent websites need three key things: good design + compelling content + easy to maintain/update.  If you don’t have a good web developer, use services like Intuit Websites or HP LogoWorks.

12. Be incredibly responsive & reachable – use a smartphone

Even when you’re not at the office, use a smartphone to be extremely responsive through voice, email, and social media. Use Google Voice to have one number that rings you at your landline, mobile, or any other number.

13. Improve process efficiency

Most agents have plenty of opportunities to be more efficient in their operational processes. For example, streamline the time to develop a custom itinerary, the time to price a quote, etc.

14. Know when to ask for a fee

I don’t believe there’s a cookie cutter answer on when to ask for a planning fee or good faith deposit. Make a judgment call on this for various types of clients.

15. Engage with social media

I highly recommend a Facebook Page for your travel business. Get your clients to be fans and to post reviews of your services.   Engage them with insights and tips.

It is fine to post some specials or deals, but a Facebook page is best used when it’s less about selling and more about engaging with fans and being helpful with your knowledge. As an example, check out the Zicasso Facebook Page.

16. Partner to get new leads

Be a good marketer – or if you’re not, hire a marketing agency to help you, or use a travel referral service like Zicasso for targeted, pre-qualified luxury leads.  Save yourself the time and focus on the selling.

17. Improve your writing/email skills

Many clients prefer email communications. Good writing is a sales skill that helps build trust and relationship with clients. Take a class to improve this skill and you’ll also improve sales conversion.

18. Sharpen your first response to clients

Obsess over the quality of your first interaction with a new client, whether it’s a phone call or an email.  Making a good first impression plays a major role in sales conversion.

19. Don’t sell deals: Sell expertise!

Many agents advertise deals on their website and send the message that they can find the best deals. It’s tough to beat deals on the Internet, and will be even tougher going forward. Transform your business and your message to sell expert advice and personalized service.

20. Be a lifelong student of change

This industry has changed tremendously and the pace of change will only accelerate. Be a constant student of best practices and be ready to adapt and adopt new ways of doing things….no matter how many years you’ve been in the industry.

And lastly…

I have a request of everyone: as you achieve success, be a role model for the next generation of young agents.

Recruit, inspire, and mentor them.  This industry desperately needs new blood and young talent will only join when they see successful role models.  I wish everyone great success in your continued business endeavors.

NB: This is a guest article by Brian Tan, founder and CEO of Zicasso, an online luxury travel referral service that connects consumers with top travel specialists.