Learn on the job
“Travel agents become overwhelmed with all the information, and they spend all their time learning until they feel they are knowledgeable,” Hansen says. “It’s important from day one to promote themselves and sell themselves while they’re learning the business at the same time.”
And there's no harm in doing so since, contrary to popular belief, agents do not need to be certified before they can begin booking travel for clients. According to HomeTravelAgency.com, an online resource for home-based travel agents, "Seeking travel agent certification and becoming a 'certified travel agent' is a matter of professional pride, not a must-have to become a travel agent."
Don’t get caught in the Web
Hansen says another mistake independent travel agents make is getting a website set up and then simply waiting for clients to arrive.
“They think they have a website and people are going to magically land on their website and book cruises,” Hansen says.
Not so. Just as is the case with any other business, agents must advertise their services and develop a marketing strategy before they can expect to get new clients. Hansen adds that consumers expect nearly every business to have some sort of online presence, but travel agents really need to sell themselves and what they offer in real life.
Differentiate your services from the online competition
How do travel agents compete with the big online sites that promise deep discounts?
Sally Black, president and mom executive officer of Vacationkids.com, an online site devoted to family travel planning, says DIY travel often leads to mistakes when customers don’t read the fine print.
Black says the challenge for travel agents is to sell clients on the fact that a professional can search out the deals and handle everything from connecting flights to contracts with ease.
“Contrary to what many folks think, travel agents are not dinosaurs,” Black says. “Customers think they can do it themselves, and then they get overwhelmed.”
Hansen says a traveler may be able to easily book a plane ticket online, but travel agents should emphasize that they are the ones who can pull together complete vacations.
“You’re selling your customer service, your expertise, your guidance,” says Hansen. “You’ll save them research time, you’ll do all the processing and paperwork for them and then you get paid by the supplier, not by them.”
Find your target market
So how can a travel agent explain to potential customers the value of the service?
“You have to go out and sell your business,” says Hansen. “Network, meet other people. Make sales calls like it’s a business and think like an entrepreneur.”
Hansen says one successful strategy is finding a travel niche and marketing to the target audience. And not to mention, while technology and travel sites may result in less demand for travel agents who make routine travel arrangements, the demand for those who specialize in exotic trips or have a niche will likely grow, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Hansen offers one example of an agent marketing herself as a "romance specialist." That agent could become an expert in land and sea honeymoons. That specialist could connect with bridal shops and scan the engagement announcements in the newspaper looking for couples in search of honeymoon destinations.
“Specializing like that allows you to say, 'I specialize in romance, and I can recommend the best vacations, but it doesn’t mean I can’t book other trips,'” Hansen says.
And she points out that today’s honeymooners may come back to the agent in a few years looking for family-friendly vacations.
That’s the specialty at Vacationkids.com where the website is full of resort reviews and travel information for families.
“In our niche, parents know they really only have a few precious years to spend vacationing with their children, and family vacation memories last for generations," Black says.
For agents just opening up shop or veterans who have had a lull in business, being patient about being paid is a challenge.
Hansen says commission structures mean the agent doesn’t get paid until the client travels.
“If you book something today you won’t see the commission for six to 12 months,” Hansen says. “It’s hard to stay motivated and engaged knowing that the reward is down the road.”
Travel agents find themselves challenged by the world of vacation options clients can access at their fingertips. Developing a specialty and concentrating on marketing offers travel professionals a way to promote their expertise and ensure the vacation of a client’s dreams.
Carla Turchetti is a veteran print and broadcast journalist who likes to break a topic down and keep her copy tight. That's why this bio is so brief! Carla blogs via Contently.com.
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