To specialize or not to specialize? That is the question for many travel counsellors. In an age where consumers literally have the world at their fingertips via the Internet and can research and book their own choices, and the retail industry increasingly depends on anonymous websites and call centres to process the mass market, more and more agents – good ones – are choosing to stand apart and are carving out lucrative careers as experts in a particular field.
- Expertise: Clients prefer talking to someone who knows more about the product than they do; and more than the Internet! You will also be able to provide a better experience for your client through your knowledge. They’ll be happy, and you’ll have repeat customers and word-of-mouth advocates.
- Differentiation: Simply put, if you’re an expert, you have an advantage over someone who isn’t.
- Competitive advantage: You can often use your contacts to cut out the “middle man” in order to negotiate a better package rate and overall pricing for your clients, creating more value.
- Additional revenue: The ability to sell based on knowledge rather than price will lead to higher-priced sales; and many clients are willing to pay for expertise and time saved on their own research.
- Fulfilling a passion: While a choice to focus on a certain industry niche, destination or activity can be a smart business decision, the best jobs are often ones that are built around personal interests; and earning money to fulfill that passion is even better.
CHOOSING YOUR SPECIALTY
There’s no limit to what a travel seller can specialize in, but it’s best to pick from the heart, say experts. “The best tip I will give is to choose a place that you love and that you yourself will not hesitate to go back to a hundred times in your life, without being bored, ever! It needs to become a passion,” says Patricia Fargeon of Toronto-based tour operator Planet France.
Darlene St. Louis, UK product manager at Senior Discovery Tours (SDT), agrees, adding that many people may have the skills and knowledge to organize good tours in areas outside their specialty, but personal experience and natural interest will be innately lacking. “I have such an affection for my area that I want everyone who visits to take away the cherished memories, unforgettable experiences and make friends along the way – just as I have!” she says.
Of course, finding success through practicality can be as good a reason as any to pick a particular niche. “Adventure travel is the fastest growing vertical in travel,” points out Aizaz Sheikh, Canadian marketing manager for G Adventures.
Similarly, the cruise industry is booming with new cutting edge Standing out from the crowd: How to choose & develop a specialization ships and greater capacity continually coming on to the market, plus approximately 23 million people around the world setting sail in 2016.
The biggest obstacle to becoming a specialist is not recognizing the opportunity. The population of Canadians over the age of 65, for example, is expected to exceed six million by 2021. That’s a lot of potential clients with the time, money and better health than ever to travel, hence an opportunity to cater to senior travellers.
While cruising is clearly popular and the industry is expecting 10 per cent passenger growth in the next couple of years, Cruise Market Watch reports that, “All the cruise ships in the entire world filled at capacity all year long still only amount to less than half of the total number of visitors to Las Vegas.”
Agents wishing to specialize must also have the right mindset and be prepared to put in the effort. “It’s about commitment and being prepared to step out of your comfort zone and learn something new,” says G’s Sheikh.
DEVELOPING YOUR NICHE
- Immerse yourself: “It is imperative for an agent to immerse themselves into the specialized area,” says SDT’s St. Louis, while Aida Vincelli, EVP of Tully Luxury Travel, adds that agents should know their destination or type of trip “like the back of your hand.”
- Specialist programs: One of the best ways to do a deep dive into a particular niche is completing a specialist program offered by a destination or industry supplier. Many travel agency groups also offer their own training. Invariably available online, programs can be completed at the participant’s preferred pace and often offer various levels that can further enhance a graduate’s basic knowledge and, with luck, offer a FAM trip to boot. In recent years, there has been a proliferation of a specialist program aggregators, such as the ACTA Campus, which group and link many industry programs in one place. Diversify: “
- Diversify: “Specializing in adventure travel doesn’t mean just specializing in adventure travel,” Sheikh says. “Agents are quite familiar with selling products such as sun, so adding specialization for adventure travel is just another string in the bow.”
- Get specific: Lynda Falcone, travel trade development manager – Canada for Visit Britain, points out that agents can drill down beyond the obvious to “create itineraries that speak to clients’ passions.” For example, a Beatles tour in Liverpool, or Shakespeare and Harry Potter literary tours. Other unique possibilities in Britain: film and TV (“set jetting”), knitting, battlefields and Royals watching. “Some things work together, like golf and whiskey,” Falcone says. “The ideas are limitless!”
- Find clients: “Knowing your speciality is one thing, but where to go to find your customers is another,” says Tully Travel’s Vincelli. “You can be a heli-hiking specialist but you cannot go after a ‘cruise loving’ market base if that is not their interest. Researching and finding your market is extremely important.” Vincelli suggests targeting special interest groups, clubs, even postal codes to find potential clients.
While there are enormous benefits and advantages to specializing, there can be drawbacks too, notably having all one’s eggs in just one basket should something go wrong. “There are risks involved in specializing in one thing or area,” Vincelli says. “For example, the specialist of Turkey might be suffering in the business of tourism at the moment.” Fargeon has been able to take that country’s recent troubles in stride.
“I will say it is riskier now than before, where unfortunately anything can happen anywhere anytime, and when you are specialized in one destination it can be dangerous. But depending on the destination, it can be viable; Planet France opened in 1998 and we are still alive and well, selling only France and French Polynesia.”
What good is a specialty if no one knows about it? Display your specialist certificate where clients and potential clients can see it, put the designation in your e-mail signature and on your business card. “Social media is great for that,” Fargeon says. “Share your experience with your clients, post pictures of the places you visit, recommend a restaurant, a museum, a special place. The more you communicate about the destination, the more people will want to go there.”
KEEPING IT FRESH
So, you’ve taken the leap, hung the certificate and you’re a specialist. It doesn’t end here. By nature of the designation, you’ve got to keep on top of your game, keep ahead of the competition. Here are some tricks of the trade:
- Travel to your destination as often as possible. Says Fargeon: “You can learn so much with books, pictures, slide shows and movies, but your experience will never be complete till you go to the destination, and live like the people there. You need to feel it.”
- Attend industry trade shows and conferences, talk to suppliers and participate in webinars. Further, don’t be afraid to pick the brains of co-workers, industry colleagues, friends and clients.
- Return to your agent specialist program periodically for updates and new material, and stay in contact with the locals representing you so that you are always on top of anything new or changing. “Never think that you know everything about your destination and you have no more to learn about it,” Fargeon says. “A country is like a person; it changes over the years. If you want to be a specialist in one destination, you have to be able to grow up with this destination, otherwise you will die before it.”
There is no shortage of destinations, niches and activities in which to specialize. Here are just a few to consider:
Q&A WITH KEITH LANE
VP of Sales, North America, Celebrity Cruises
Why specialize in cruise?
We believe that agents should specialize in what they love to sell along with what fits their business model and expertise. Working with the right brand partner and having the proper training will position agents as the expert their client relies on and trusts, increasing the repeat ratio and profitability for the travel partner. The right brand partner is instrumental to success. Guests who return from their cruise vacation satisfied will have booked another cruise onboard as is the case with Celebrity Cruises’ Future Cruise onboard booking program.
Is it a competitive advantage?
Yes, a travel partner’s understanding of how to sell cruise will ensure their client gets the best value and experience. The competitive advantage in selling Celebrity Cruises is in our pricing strategy called Go Big, Go Better, Go Best. This allows the client, via the travel partner, to choose from our all-inclusive amenities (beverage package, unlimited WiFi, gratuities, etc.) built into the cost of the cruise; therefore, the travel partner makes more commission selling our brand.