The travel agent industry is at a crossroad. Their numbers are shrinking, the press ignores them and the public thinks they’re extinct. Unless the industry unites to undertake a bold initiative to increase consumer awareness of the value they provide, travel agents will face further shrinkage, marginalization and irrelevance. I believe now is the time to use the power of numbers in creating a coordinated online marketing effort by each and every travel professional to individually brand themselves as travel experts and communicate the value they add to the vacation planning process.
I am calling on the major trade associations (ASTA, ARTA, Travel Institute, Travel Leaders, Nexion, Vacation.com, Etc.) and the travel media (Travel Weekly, Travel Agent, TRO, Travel Pulse, Travel Market Report, Etc.) to collectively endorse and promote the concept of a coordinated online marketing effort by all travel professionals. The trade associations would provide the push to participate and roadmap to success. The travel trade media would provide the conduit of information, energy and excitement about the program. Note that each individual travel professional would post about the topics of their choice. The industry would only provide the structure, concepts and marketing principles to eliminate anti-trust concerns.
Last year, I created an online marketing effort called the Travel Blog Project where 230 travel professionals spent the first hour of each morning blogging, posting on social media and email to brand themselves as travel experts. I witnessed the power of this approach first hand and think now is the time for the industry as a whole to undertake a massive coordinated online marketing effort. Think of the profound effect 75,000 travel agents would have by telling their stories all at once through Blogging, Tweeting, Facebook, LinkedIn and updating their websites with informative travel advice and knowledge. It could bring renewed relevance, new clients and an influx of new blood into a vibrant and growing travel agent industry.
If each Travel Professional created a marketing strategy to increase their online footprint, you would have tens of thousands of multi-channel marketing campaigns all going at once. The only cost would be their time and effort as there are so many FREE marketing opportunities for travel professionals to brand themselves as experts and tell their story. The options include easy to set up WordPress websites, Blogs, Facebook, Twitter and other social communities and forums. Not taking advantage of these free opportunities available is leaving money on the table that may mean the difference between thriving and failure.
There is a lot at stake
Suppliers are concerned that the number of travel agents has become insufficient to fill the seats, berths and rooms they have invested in creating. The dilemma for wholesale travel operators and cruise lines is that going direct comes at a high price. While the cost advantage of online “touch-less” bookings is profound, it also creates commodity exchanges like the new Google Flights and Hotels where all competitors are listed for comparison with the only way to get top listing is to be $1 dollar less than the competition. This strips the company of profits and pricing power far more than the commission it pays a travel agent to deliver a customer. Commodity exchanges also have the effect of substantially reducing the ability to differentiate products and services beyond cost. For an industry that relies on a “star” rating system to determine value this is devastating.
The number of Travel Professional must grow or the industry will become further marginalized and irrelevant. While I believe that travel agents are the most powerful force in travel marketing, I also believe their success, or demise is squarely in their own hands.