As the past president of Merit Travel, Jason Merrithew is no stranger to the travel industry. These days, he is a travel distribution and hospitality consultant and investor. With a fresh perspective of the industry as a whole, Merrithew offers a bold prescription for the ailments plaguing today’s advisors.
By Jason Merrithew, Principal, Peninsula Road Investments
WHEN YOU TURN ON THE TV to watch a hockey game, there is one thing you can count on: both teams are playing hockey. Players share the same objectives and play by the same set of rules. The same thing is happening in travel distribution except for one key difference: there is a very good chance that you and your competition are playing totally different sports.
Consultants and advisors make a critical error when communicating their value proposition: they try to deliver their value statement in a way which allows the client to compare them to an online travel agency – or worse yet, the end experience provider. The problem is, you and your so-called “competition” are actually playing a different game with different rules, different objectives, different referees and a different clock.
OTAs and direct suppliers have a singular objective: convert one potential customer of a single product/room night/experience into a purchaser of that single product. By contrast, a full-service consultant’s objective is to convert one potential customer into one whom will purchase a wide variety of intermixed and connected end experiences, to form a wholistic travel package.
The number one thing a travel consultant or agency group must do to set their business apart is understand which game they are playing. They must stop trying to play hockey during a basketball game.
Online travel agencies designed the game; they designed it for themselves. Travel consultants will not win their game, so they must play their own.
THE AGENCY COMMUNITY NEEDS to change its perspective. Instead of focusing on “a variety of products” and “amenities or add-ons,” they need to come out and say what they do – without using the language of the competition. You are a teammate to your client in a game which increasingly looks to monetize every step they take while exploiting their missteps. You are there before, during and after the experience. You are a guide for realizing exceptional travel experiences.
The tools available online are becoming smarter, faster and more useful to clients. Do not avoid this point; it is demonstrably factual. Accept it and craft a value proposition which is rooted in the empathy, support and hours of effort saved to achieve the same, if not better, result for a traveller.
Do not suggest to a client that booking their trip online will be sub-par. It will likely meet their expectations. Do suggest that booking a trip themselves presents fewer opportunities to exceed expectations and that is where you excel.
THE ANSWER TO THE QUESTION “What do you sell?” or “What prices do you have access to?” needs to be the same: “I focus on making your trip the best trip. I use all the tools you have access to – and many that you don’t – to make it happen. I am a professional and I charge a fee for doing this.”
This response requires self-confidence. It requires conviction. Most importantly, it requires bravery – not just at the travel consultant level, but at the agency level too. Owners and leadership need to support front line staff by echoing this sentiment; they need to give them the opportunity to build self-confidence.
Owners and managers also need to understand the changing landscape of the customer’s path to purchase. We need to eliminate the days of “being wary of the tire kickers.” These tire kickers are curious about what you do. If you are in a retail location, the goal should be to invite people to spend as long as possible in the store, not to qualify them out as soon as you believe they aren’t ready to purchase that day. A 30-minute conversation about Thailand or how amazing the street food is in Singapore positions a consultant (and by extension, their brand) as not just a travel expert, but a passionate ally in an increasingly complex and murky World Wide Web of booking travel. Embrace the opportunity to share your knowledge with people; they will reward you with loyalty in the future.
But there are only so many hours in the day and only so many opportunities for interactions. It’s the number one complaint I hear from today’s travel consultants: they have no time; they are so busy.
As professionals, we should constantly be asking ourselves one question: Am I putting myself in the best position to do my job at the highest level possible?
For many of us, the answer is no. Often, it’s because we are too busy. This is where a second wave of bravery is required: fire half of your clients.
You already know which clients are more trouble than they are worth. Stop telling yourself that “Maybe in the future they will book something big.” This is not a reason to sell yourself short.
Go through your client list and identify which ones do not view you as a professional and would not pay a fee for your time and expertise. During your next interaction with them, present your professional fee structure and if they do not agree, suggest a “wonderful website” which might be better suited to their needs.
In that moment, you will have just taken the first step towards being the best version of a travel professional you can be. You have created time in your day to be exceptional for your remaining clients.
Lastly, agency owners need to take note of this and accept it as a process, not an overnight change. Support and encourage the consultants who wish to take the first step towards being the type of professional service provider who will continue to be in business years from now. If you do not support them, they will find someone who will.
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