In August, Key Notes On Travel hosted a panel discussion that explored how advisors can protect their business from discounters. Three experts weighed in with real, no-fluff strategies relating to retaining business, winning back clients and best practices for building loyal, repeat customer relationships.



As consumers increasingly turn to the Internet or big-box stores like Costco to book their vacations, travel agents must take a pro-active role to prove their value to both prospective and existing clients. The way to do that is build a positive relationship founded on trust and respect, according to a panel of experts from a recent Key Notes on Travel discussion on strategies to overcome discounters.

While they agree it can be frustrating to deal with a client who is price shopping, the good news is many travellers still want the individualized service only a travel advisor can offer. Indeed, almost 70 per cent of cruise travellers take advantage of the expertise of a travel agent to book a cruise vacation, according to Cruise Lines International Association.

“Most people prefer to deal with someone local… particularly in the luxury market. They don’t want to keep training their travel agent,” said Dan Chappelle, president of The Wealthy Travel Agent. But, he added, “You have to prove your value to the consumer.”

Chappelle said it begins with a qualifying conversation, and if a prospective client isn’t willing to commit to a conversation it’s likely you won’t have a shot at the booking. “When all they want is a quick price that’s a red flag you are being ‘shopped’ and you might not want to invest too much time,” he warned.

If advisors can connect with a prospect they suspect might be price-shopping, look for common ground to first build rapport, said communication and conflict resolution expert Charmaine Hammond. Then, ask open-ended questions such as “who have you spoken to so far?” and “where are you at with them?” to gauge the likelihood of the prospect booking elsewhere.

However, even if a client occasionally uses an OTA, Mike Foster, president of Nexion Canada still sees potential. He explained: “If the client booked online and there was a problem, look at it as an opportunity. It sets you up for future business.”

He recalled the time an agent was able to win the loyalty of a client who normally booked online. The traveller had booked with the agent but upon arrival at his hotel in the Dominican Republic, discovered there was no available room for him. The stranded traveller called the agent from the lobby and the advisor was able to get on the phone and immediately fix the problem. The client was so impressed he declared he’d never book online again; the advisor proved his value.

However, Chappelle reminded agents not to get lost in the vertigo of chasing OTA or discounter pricing for a transaction that may ultimately net a loss. Foster agreed, noting “not all clients are equal.”

But based on advisor feedback, price-matching and discounts are frequent client requests. Foster strongly encouraged advisors to resist competing on price.

“If someone’s going to come to you for a dollar, they’re going to leave you for a dollar. That’s not a great relationship,” he emphasized. “If they’re not going to book with you it’s because you failed to convince them of your value. Know your value. Ask the right questions. Answer questions. Sell ‘you’ to the client first. Once you develop that rapport…the price won’t be so important; they won’t leave you to save a dollar because you’ve sold them on you.” 

There is a popular idea in the travel industry that charging service fees correlate to better clients. If that’s the case, why don’t more advisors charge them?

Chappelle said from what he’s seen, most travel advisors don’t regularly charge a service fee. But he believes if the travel advisor is able to offer something extra, they should be charging one. “If you have expertise in a niche, specialized knowledge or resources then absolutely, you should be charging fees and people will pay them,” he said. He added that consumers often ask why they should pay a fee if they can get the same product online. “The differentiator is you,” declared Chappelle.

When speaking to clients about charging a service fee, Hammond cautioned against prefacing with an apologetic statement like “I don’t want to charge the fee but it’s policy.”

“This is an area for clarity and brevity. Don’t be hesitant,” she said. “How you speak is extremely important.” She gave the example of never ending a statement with an “upswing” tone because a verbal inflection disintegrates trust. “You want a downswing – that builds rapport and trust.”

If the worst-case scenario happens and a prospective or current client books elsewhere, don’t immediately write them off.

Hammond said this is when having a good relationship can recover lost business. She suggested asking open-ended question in a non-judgmental manner and to “remind them of the power of the relationship you have.” Hammond emphasize the importance of staying in touch so they “don’t disconnect.”

Both Foster and Chappelle agreed, adding the main reason you lose clients is likely because you haven’t communicated well. Chappelle even suggested that agents might check in with the traveller while in-destination or when they get back. “Although we say we do, most [advisors] really don’t [follow up]. And the odds are pretty good the other agent they booked with hasn’t followed up,” said Chappelle. “Who do you think they’re going to remember? It’s all part of nurturing that relationship. 

Watch the panel discussion video:


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