Experts advise that travel agents get to know hotel staff. // © 2012 Thinkstock
Ensuring a perfect hotel stay is one of the crucial ways travel agents can prove their worth to their clients. A sub-par hotel experience can ruin your clients’ trip. If they encounter a serious hotel snafu, they may question your ability to get the job done and look elsewhere the next time they plan a trip. There are ways to stack the odds in your favor by putting hotel best practices into play. At the same time, adopting these practices will also improve your bottom line.
Personal Relationships Are Key
The American Society of Travel Agent’s 2011 Supplier-Travel Agent Marketing Report showed that 94 percent of agents ranked reputation/product quality as top criteria, 62 percent say that firsthand knowledge of product is important and 47 percent noted that a personal relationship with a supplier representative was important. If and when problems arise, an agent’s relationship with the hotel representative can help settle the waters.
Ella Messerli, general manager at Secrets Marquis Los Cabos, noted that general managers face a barrage of requests for everything from upgrades to perks for VIPs.
“It’s good for agents to have a relationship with the GM, but it’s also important to foster a relationship with the general manager’s assistant,” advised Messerli. “Sometimes the GM might not be available.”
Messerli is a big fan of the easy give-and-take of communication on Twitter.
“I signed onto Twitter and began having conversations with travel agents about Mexico and hotels in general and, of course, about the Marquis. Our tweeting back and forth created confidence in each other’s professionalism. I recommend that agents give it a try.”
It’s not always necessary for your client to have deep pockets in order to get an upgrade — it can also be a matter of how well connected they are.
“Sometimes, we will provide an upgrade for a client, if we think they are positioned to spread the word about our hotel,” said Messerli. “We may put them in one of our casitas, even if it’s beyond their personal budget, with the expectation that, when they are home, they will tell their acquaintances about how wonderful it was.”
Messerli considers commissions to be a cost of doing business.
“Offering a higher commission can be justified if there’s business backing it up,” said Messerli. “We’ll consider a higher commission, but an agent has to prove to me that down the road there will be additional business coming our way.”
Tammy Levent, CEO of Elite Travel and a specialist in destination weddings, luxury trips and upscale corporate incentive travel, is up-front about angling for higher commissions.
“I get 20 percent commissions on hotel stays for corporate clients that travel often,” she revealed. “To obtain commissions like these, you have to make a commitment to the supplier that they will continue to get your business.”
Levent gets the client the best price she can and then tries to get extra perks.
“I begin with the hotel rep — if there’s no rep — I go to the concierge,” said Levent. “If I have doubts that the concierge will follow through, I then go to the GM. At that level, I can hold the GM personally responsible.”
Levent is not a fan of run-of-the-mill group fam trips. Instead, she contacts the resort directly and tells them she will be in the area and would like to visit.
“I rent a car and see as many resorts as I can,” said Levent. “I let them know right off the bat that I’m not interested in a round of golf or going on an excursion. I want to observe the resort in operation and feel the vibe.”
According to Levent, hotel reps are supportive and helpful in arranging her single agent tours.
“By setting up the research trip on my own I’m building a one-on-one relationship with hotel reps,” added Levent.
“It’s not only important to be an expert on a destination or hotel, but agents should get to know their clients before booking a hotel stay or a vacation,” advised Ellen Bettridge vice president, American Express Travel U.S. Retail Network. “While some clients may think an upgrade to a higher room category will make or break a trip, others will find a spa voucher or tips on the best excursion a highlight. In order to exceed their clients’ expectations, travel agents need to make sure they are clear as to what those expectations are.”
Foster a Flow of Information
While top travel agents zero in on hotel specialist programs and keep up with the trades, they are also hungry for direct information from their hotel suppliers. In the ASTA report, emails and local trade shows ranked highest with agents as the best ways to learn about new suppliers — with emails coming in at 63 percent and local trade shows posting 60 percent.
In his position as director of marketing at the San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino, in Puerto Rico, Julian Cable-Treadwell finds himself frequently attending travel marketing events, which provides him with opportunities for face-to-face meetings with travel agents.
“Personal contact is crucial in the travel agent community,” said Cable-Treadwell. “After we meet and exchange cards, agents often subsequently drop me a line with a request or question.”
How many bookings must an agent make before they can inquire about a special request for his/her client?
“If they make even one booking, that’s enough,” noted Cable-Treadwell. “You can reach out to the GM. You’re both seeking the same thing — satisfying the customer. We encourage special requests from travel agents, and we’ll do anything we can to increase that perception of value.”
Cable-Treadwell noted that it’s not always easy for an agent to instantly track a general manager down.
“My GM is very hands-on,” said Cable-Treadwell. “In general, GMs love to get out from behind the desk and get in front of guests. Taking this into account, I would encourage travel agents to foster relationships with the hotel’s sales manager as well.”
Cable-Treadwell acknowledged that travel agents of today have to work hard for their bookings.
“During a fam, they are very focused, asking questions and taking lots of photos, which can help them in the selling process once they return home,” said Cable-Treadwell. “While participating in a fam, I would encourage them to dig even deeper for insider information outside the hotel, such as where is the best restaurant and which tour is the best, for instance.”
I asked Cable-Treadwell which, in his opinion, is a stronger position for an agent, being an independent agent or part of a consortium?
“At San Juan Marriott, the door is open the same measure whether you’re a member of a consortium or an independent agency,” said Cable-Treadwell. “However, we also love the fact that an agent is affiliated with a consortium or network, since they bring a lot to the table.”
One of the advantages of being in a consortium is access to the group’s network of information.
“If a member hasn’t been to a particular hotel, someone in the Virtuoso network will have been and can provide in-the-know information,” said Albert Herrera, vice president of hotel, destinations and tours for Virtuoso. “As a network, we produce $9.6 billion a year in travel sales, which means more buying clout and negotiating power to secure better commissions for the entire membership rather than a single agency. The amenities we negotiate on members’ behalf are valued at up to $450 per stay.”
Herrera weighed in on the question of whether it’s best to work with the general manager of a hotel or its sales director.
“My advice is to get to know as many people as you can at a hotel,” he advised. “Today’s sales director may be tomorrow’s GM.”
Herrera also has some advice for those participating in a hotel site inspection.
“The hotel will show you the best rooms with the best views, but also get out and see the things your clients will see,” he said. “Talk to the staff — the waiters and bell men. See how happy they are. If they are proud, it will shine through. Also, ask to check the back of the house — the kitchens and laundry. This will give you an inside look at how the hotel is run.”
Ignacio Maza, executive vice president at Signature Travel Network, had some straightforward advice that will ensure agents’ clients have a smooth stay.
“First, book the correct rate code in the GDS,” advised Maza. “In addition, send the hotel’s sales office an advance notice, confirming the arrival of your client and ensuring the hotel has all the information they need to make the stay memorable. Information such as arrival time or departure time of the guest, special requests in the room — minibar, pillow type and more — and type of room requested. This helps the consultant exceed expectations when the guest arrives on property.”
Maza also advised agents to pre-book all arrangements for their clients as much as possible.
“This includes dinner reservations on property, tee times, spa appointments, airport transfers and any other services the client may need,” said Maza.
According to Maza, social media will never replace face-to-face relationships.
“Knowing someone on property, or who represents the hotel, makes all the difference,” said Maza. “The hotel industry is driven by personal relationships. Take the time to cultivate your hotel partners, and you will see many positive results.”