Brave New World
Thriving in an era of self-booking
What do travel agents actually do? While on the surface it may seem like the job is about selling airline tickets, hotels and car rentals, Jason Merrithew, president of Merit Travel, says it really comes down to providing expertise, experience and service.
“You have to understand what you actually do – you actually elevate travel experiences,” Merrithew tells Canadian Travel Press from his office in downtown Toronto. “You actually provide a sense of luxury for all travellers depending on what their view of luxury is. You actually protect their investment. You are actually their advocate. The fact that you do book airline tickets, hotels, car rentals and tours, and make restaurant reservations, that’s secondary to what your job is. That’s how you are going to execute on what you do, but it isn’t how the client needs to understand you for what you do.”
Standing out from the crowd
In an era of online bookings, he says travel advisors need to understand what their value proposition is in order to stand out from the competition.
“As the industry has shifted and as self-booking abilities have become more and more obvious to travellers, consultants have responded in a lot of cases by sticking their heads in the sand, ‘The Internet is not coming to get me.’ No, the Internet is coming to get you,” he says.
However, Merrithew believes travel agents can adapt and respond to the changes in the industry by focusing on providing a sense of luxury for travellers.
“We put such an emphasis at Merit on luxury for an individual traveller, finding what that person’s luxury is and being able to find experiences for them that they didn’t even know existed,” he says. “If you do that, you’re good. If you do that, you have a job forever, because you’re always going to be able to bring something new to the table. If you are offering a better way to do something, the people who want to work with you will be very loyal for that.”
At Merit, he says millennials are the fastest growing demographic to take to working with travel consultants, and they are looking for personalization and expertise.
“I think it has a lot more to do with people looking and saying what is possible? You know, I didn’t even know visiting that museum after dark was possible. I didn’t even know I could have dinner on this beach, or whatever it is,” he says. “And that looks and feels like traditional luxury, today, because that’s our word for it, but what it really is is travel consultants throwing their weight around and showing the value that they bring to the table is in delivering experiences that look like luxury because they’ve been designed to be luxurious for that person.”
Another way of increasing sales and providing value is for travel agents to be more proactive in going after clients, and to play a bigger part of their clients’ decision to travel in the first place – even if it means building relationships with people who don’t seem like they are ready to purchase at the moment.
“Learn about who they are, figure out what they like, where have they been before, what do they like, what do they not like. We’re not just transactional, we cannot exist as just transactional people,” he says. “If we just wait for people to come to us when they are ready to travel and know what they want to do, we’ve lost the battle. I just think that’s the reality of our industry, it’s changing, it’s not going back to the way it was. There is so much information out there, so much accessibility for information out there, that if we’re not more proactive, we’re not putting ourselves in front of people as experts.”
Sales by justifying existence is not a sales strategy
Although many other industries are also facing similar challenges to remain relevant, he says the travel industry appears to be the only one justifying its existence as a method of sales.
“It’s not like because I’m here, you should work with me because I can do these things, you should work with me. Travel consultants need to let go, me included, of the ‘I’m here so how do I convince people to work
with us?’ mentality. They already want to work with you or they don’t,” he says. “They see value in a service that’s being provided that they cannot procure themselves. Our market, we need to respond to the market for travel consultants by understanding that that isn’t everybody. That people are going to book online, they are going to book directly with suppliers, that they are going to do these things themselves and that as a result, our mix of clients may change.”
You may have the WRONG clients
Whether or not travel agents are ready to admit it, he says a significant portion of people don’t want what they’re offering – and that’s okay.
“I don’t think it’s possible to have a professional relationship with people who believe at their heart that they can do this better on their own,” he says. “You may have the wrong clients. That’s a very real problem.”
As opposed to trying to convince those people that travel consultants are who they should work with, he says they should tailor their message to those who are listening.
“As we see a shift towards using travel consultants more, we feel confident we’re acquiring the right clients,” he says. “We feel we’re bringing in the right clients faster than the wrong clients are leaving, and I think that’s very important. I think that’s great for the business, I think that sets us up fantastically well for the future.”
Fees aren’t about the money
When it comes to charging fees, Merrithew feels strongly that it’s not to make an agency more money, but because they are providing a professional service for a client.
“You’re a professional and you deserve to be paid for your time. It’s not going to form a significant form of your compensation. It’s not going to bring in a significant amount of money for the agency, but you will be compensated for your time like every other professional that is highly educated and highly trained,” he says.
Particularly for luxury travellers, he says the fee forms such a small percentage of what they actually spend on travel.
“If you charge $100 per person for a booking unless you are spending a week on a beach for $1,000, you are probably spending less than 5% of your total budget on the professional’s work,” he says. “And you are still paying the best price in the market for the end product you are consuming.”
You gotta fight for your right
As for commission cuts, he says he cringes whenever he sees emails or updates about how agencies are counteracting the blow by marking things up or charging additional fees.
“I say how is it that your agency is just simply no longer booking that hotel chain period? How are you not voting with your wallet? How are you not actually making a statement? You are not having any impact if you are doing anything else,” he says.
When an agency or travel agent gets hit with a commission cut, Merrithew says they shouldn’t just roll over.
“That’s what they do, they hit us. Whether it’s hotels or airlines, they are punches. We’re a distribution channel, we always have been, we always will be, and as a result, any opportunity to reduce costs is going to come to distribution channels. If they can get away with it, they will get away with it. The only thing that keeps them from getting away with it is understanding that actions have consequences,” he says. “At a leadership level, it’s understanding that no matter how good a job your people do, you need to be a full-throated advocate for the importance of what you bring to travellers, not just we’re here, so we deserve this. You don’t. You deserve things that you make arguments for, you deserve things that you justify so that for me has always been a challenging thing in this industry.”