Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Travel Connections

I’ve always taken a personal interest in the travel agency business. The first reason is because I travel so much, and the second is that my wife Ro worked in the industry for a long time. Over the years I watched many travel agencies struggle against the onslaught of the internet. In the 1980s, agencies booked nearly 80 percent of all airline tickets, but by the mid-1990s many were struggling to survive. Their challenge was simple: how to protect their expertise from being commodified big-time. At the same time as commissions were being squeezed, travelers were gaining confidence and going it alone. They learned how to do their own research, make their own bookings, and share experiences without any help from travel agents. The word ‘agency’ is a flashing red light: Watch out! Risk of commodification ahead. If your job is to act on behalf of someone, there is a lot more room for competitors – whether they are software or cheaper and faster new guys – to get in between you and your customers.

I feel the pain of the travel industry. We changed Saatchi & Saatchi from an advertising agency into an ideas company because of similar threats. From a model based on margins and percentages, travel agents are headed to the brave new world of people paying for their ideas. They are changing from an information business (which the collective might of the Internet does better than even the smartest travel expert) into an empathy business of foresight and imagination (which the Internet still struggles with). Knowing stuff is easy. Knowing the right stuff and how to connect it emotionally with people is another. Language matters, so I think that travel agents should not just change what they do, but change who they are. From Travel Agents, to Travel Reagents. It’s just like you learned in high school chemistry - reagents are the ones you use to create a reaction in combination with some other substance. The travel people that excel in the coming years will be the ones with an intimate understanding of the personalities, interests and passions of their customers. They have to come so close to our dreams that their prescience seems uncanny. It is no longer enough to book someone who’s into art into a hotel near an art museum. People are starting to expect their hotel to have decent art on display, to know the most helpful dealers in town, to have introductions to interesting private collections, to be able to get a room in an art fair town that is overbooked every year.

How will we know when we have found a great Travel Reagent? Try these three questions:

1. Have they ever called you unannounced and suggested an expedition that makes you think, “How did they know I’ve always wanted to do that?” It could be the Galapagos Islands in the mating season or the October get-together in Marfa, Texas, but only people with empathy for these special passions know why they are so important.

2. On your return from a trip, have they ever listened very carefully to what you had to say – and taken notes?

3. And finally, here’s a radical one, have they ever been some place you’ve been to first, simply because they trust your judgment.


bdunn said...

Great observation. What about real estate agents? What should their approach to lovemarks be?

Susan956 said...

(bdunn..I could write a paper on real estate agents..good lord).

Intriguing question 3. Very different. One assumes said traveler would be a platinum or similar (in other words a very frequent client) for an agent to be willing to listen those closely?

Question 2 - very important in my view and should be a visible behaviour in virtually every field of business.

Question 1 I like because it speaks to the motivation and response of the agent to who you are etc.

I would add to the list and suggest that a responsive agent would be one who would potentially amend their brochures or advice materials based upon your feedback.

In the same manner may invite you to submit some of your photos for their brochures.

As a third may compose a coffee table book based upon images and travel narratives of their most regular customers.

Lastly may build in elements from the above on any travel talks they give. One of the most mind numbing talks I've ever been to was from a travel agent. I suspect it was a stock talk they had learnt by heart and had not changed in years.

I've not been to any of the places talked about on this blog..however..I am reminded of that song "I've been everywhere man" that lists a load of Australian towns..I could probably sing something like that and that would be true for my travel experience :)

Anonymous said...

This is so true about travel agents...they are reactive, follow the sheep kind of people....seemingly incapable of thinking outside the square let alone creating great travel outside the square. But takes a lot of work to suss out these unique special locations, accommodation etc, requiring a good return to make it is being done by a small number of unique operators, not travel agents by any description. HOwever, take a look at Intrepid...the Aussie company who does organised travel. Sure they dont do elite stuff, but they do create trips that are more unique and offer different styles to suit the different needs of the travellers. And they do good marketing online, at promotional evenings, and thru their newsletter, and respond to the feedback of their clients. I think Intrepid and other specialist operators who do operate at the elite level are already providing what you agents are simply on the way to being made redundant...through their own lack of imagination & insight, lack of travel experience (particularly US agents from my personal experience), poor pay (=poor motivation) and sheer lack of knowledge. They are a thing of the past and only survive thru those poor unsuspecting travellers who are also new to travel and dont realise how much better their trip could be...and cheaper! Sorry...scathing...generalised...but generally true.
Margi, New Zealand

Kempton said...

From "agency" to "ideas company" in one short post, very nice. (smile) And I love the example of travel agent/reagent.

Interesting question re: real estate agent's Lovemarks approach.

For those that haven't seen it, 60 minutes did a very nice piece on online real estate agents "Chipping Away At Realtors' Six Percent",

The current approach of the real estate agent associations of putting up road blocks (lobbying for and creating legislative measures) seem short sighted to me as they are obvious anti-competitive measures that would not and should not survive closer examination by the voters.

Just my 2 cents.

- Kempton

CONSUL said...

Fly me to the moon
And let me play among the stars
Let me see what spring is like
On Jupiter and Mars
In other words hold my hand
In other words darling kiss me
(Bart Howard)

Will Emotional Travel (“e-travel”) be the future? I doubt Internet can do better...


Piotr Jakubowski said...

I agree with this concept of Travel Reagants that you've touched light upon. The internet has revolutionized the travel booking experience, but seems to have failed in creating a model that emphasizes the emotional connections we are used to. I could see the future of the online travel business accommodating a model similar to that of , in which based on a choice that you make for a certain itinerary, the service recommends a variety of similar experiences. Booked hotel X with a spa in Bali? We recommend the rice paddy spa experience from company Y, as well as shopping at company Z for spa products that you can use at home.

At the end of the day I think it's down to the personal connection that the internet will not be able to recreate for quite some time. From knowing that someone else is handling the situation, to the voice on the other side of the phone reassuring that everything will run smoothly, a Travel Reagent is a much more comforting channel through which to organize an otherwise complicated ordeal. These Reagants should take an example out of Hotel concierge, who after a few interactions happen to know what you like and don't like, crafting your own personal holiday experience. One of my co-workers recently planned her honeymoon through a travel service, and from the hard work and reassurance she received from her planner, she is ready to go (and it's still 4 months away).

Personally, I travel quite extensively as well, and for small domestic flights, I find it easier to find my own ticket. But when I visit my family, the time commitment involved in trying to organize and set up 5 legs roundtrip is ridiculous, as are some of the prices.

In terms of the questions, I think question 1 reflects on the personal commitment these Reagents need to establish with their customers. People always remember the small things in their life, and give respect to those who take the time and effort to make the small things happen. This is why the Singapore Airlines inflight staff has won Best Staff awards for 17 years straight. Small things have big meanings.

The second question is so important, and personally I would give the agent as much feedback as possible to make the experience for the next person that much better. Susan, I LOVE your idea of incorporating the photography of a client in brochures promoting the trips, especially now with the prices of digital cameras shooting through the floor. It's similar to the concept of a wedding photographer pinning up thank you cards from people who have been very satisfied with their experience. Such a personal touch. And I am very passionate about photography.

Susan956 said...

I sometimes have problems submitting a post here and what I'm about to provide a link for would have made better sense against a post I had submitted earlier. Be that as it may, lo and behold a news item on holidays on second life. To be honest, I find these places/sites rather sad but that response is after spending years researching social spaces online and better understanding why people become frequent users of such sites etc.,23483,21982652-5012740,00.html

There is clearly market room for an appropriate e-travel site that takes fulsome advantage of current technology and that doesn't need to buy into the type of fantasy elements (as such) sites like second life buy in to. I KNOW a lot of people enjoy them. Another topic really. However, on this blog alone the expertise exists to create an excellent e-travel concept and site. (This includes people who can access expertise of course).

Now THAT would be a novel emergence from KRConnect would it not? A wonderful, creative experiment. Anyone interested? I'd certainly put my hand up to outline a concept that is already forming in my brainbox.

Susan956 said...

Ok. So clearly my earlier post was eaten by blog gremlins.

In essence I wrote to margi posing that I believe more and more people are developing their own travel plans and utilising competitive online agencies to try and beat down fares. Most major companies offer a discount if you book and purchase online so this is a tempting offer.

To Kempton I commented on real estate agents and the fact that regulatory expectations of them, particularly in terms of the rental side of their businesses, is minimalistic. This needs addressing and quickly.

To Consul..renaissance man of song and visuals (this comes out in many posts :0 ) I spoke of e-travel..of the hologram decks in Star Trek et al.

piotr.. I thanked you and felt several of your expressions sound and intriguing. I also believe small things count for a great deal and welcome seeing corporations reward staff who do well in this domain. A few years ago I approached an upmarket boutique hotel suggesting that I be enabled to interview willing repeat clients and, using both garnered narratives and client's own photographic images, developed coffee table style 'guides' for each of their locations. All I received from the marketing manager was a repeated.. "Huh, I don't get it, what IS it? (referring to concept). I explained to the point where I realised I was simply facing resistance and dropped it. Perhaps coming from out of the marketing field proper I was not employing the jargon required to 'make sense' *grin*

Piotr Jakubowski said...

Susan - based on your concept at the hotel, I think that is exactly the reason why companies which embrace innovation and new ideas the quickest are the ones who end up leading the pack. It's a shame that there are less people in the business world who are willing to stray from the constant race for increased profit margin to try something different that would in turn help them.

And that's the whole beauty of taking risks. If you fail, there are lessons to be learned. But if you succeed, then the spoils are so much greater than the risks that had to be taken to get there. I think Mr. Roberts knows a fair share about this ;)

Susan956 said...

piotr.. I rather think taking risks falls back to whether you are prepared to be vulnerable and, to a degree, exposed, to others.

And yes, it IS a shame some in positions that enable them to take calculated risks don't do so more often.

adrian ramsay said...

well said, i have years of travel booked via RO and her tavel agency.
her team did all of the above and would use there network to find you cool places to stay etc... as well as get your recommendations for other clients.. matching people to tarvel is an art, and oten the freedom travler misses what the great agent can expose them to.
long live the artist