Although it is difficult to do, developing a strategy for attracting first-time clients is crucial for today's travel agents. // (C) 2010 Istock Images
You know the feeling: the one that leaves your stomach in knots and your head in a fog. You want to reach out to that first-time client — the one who has never used a travel agent before — but you just don’t know how to, or what to say once you do.
In short, attracting a first-time client is a lot like asking someone out on a date for the first time. It is utterly nerve-wracking — and the response may not always be what you had hoped for — but it is worth a try.
This is especially true when it comes to selling travel today. At a time when the majority of consumers books their travel online and on their own, it is crucial for agents to not only keep the business that they have, but to continuously court new clientele.
According to the 2010 Portrait of American Travelers survey conducted by Ypartnership and the Harrison Group, only 8 percent of U.S. travelers typically books with a traditional agent; 66 percent, on the other hand, usually book their own travel using online agency sites such as Expedia, Travelocity or Orbitz. With such a small percentage of travelers booking directly with agents, travel agents cannot afford to neglect new business.
“Every agency should have a strategy to attract new customers,” said Marc R. Kassouf, owner and CEO of Long Beach, Calif.-based Pride Travel. “Even the most loyal of customers may go away; I don’t think I know of any industry that doesn’t want new customers.”
Chris Russo, American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) president and chairman, added, “It’s eight times as much effort to attract a new client than to keep the one you have, but you need to be in a constant mode of growth in order to be prosperous.”
And, there is no better time than the present to begin attracting new business.
“A common trap that a lot of agents fall into is that, when the phone isn’t ringing, that is when they start marketing,” said Paul Wiseman, president of Trafalgar Tours. “By that point, it’s already too late. You want to market your services before the phones even start ringing.”
While strategies will vary from agency to agency, there are a number of simple methods for agents to attract a potential client’s attention and to gain a happy customer for life in the process.
Figure Out What You Want
Before you even begin, you must identify the type of client for whom you want to work. To make a perfect match, agents should determine which types of travelers share their agency’s interests or could benefit most from the agency’s strengths and expertise.
“Understanding the profile of a first-time client is absolutely essential,” said Steve Born, vice president of marketing for Globus Family of Brands. “You need to know their characteristics first.”
Tour operators, like travel agents, must often work harder at attracting first-time customers who are unfamiliar with their products and services. Globus invests heavily in traveler profile research. For Globus, the ideal first-time client is defined by three factors: “fun, function and 40s (Boomers).”
Boomers exhibit huge business potential for tour operators and agents alike. According to 2009 U.S. Census Bureau statistics, Boomers (ages 45-63) represent the largest generational group in the U.S. with an estimated population size of 77.9 million, followed by Xers (ages 31-44) with 57.6 million and Millennials (ages 18-30) with 55.8 million.
“For our agency, the Boomer generation seems to have the most growth potential, especially with the incomes that they have,” said Russo.
Pride Travel co-owner and COO, Nathan DePetris, follows a somewhat different approach.
“From my perspective, the highest value comes from the younger travelers [Millennials],” DePetris said. “They have a much longer life cycle, and they are incredibly Internet-savvy. We are investing in the younger client for the long term.”
More than just trying to appeal to a particular age group or demographic, agents should also identify specific travel preferences, attitudes and needs.
Kassouf reaches out to busy professionals. Because they are accustomed to paying a service fee and have less free time on their hands, they are also more willing to utilize the services of a travel agent to help them book their travel.
Julie Johnson, co-owner of Azzurro Travel in Marina del Rey, Calif., applies a similar strategy.
“We’re trying to go after niches where they actually need our help,” she said. “We focus our marketing money on niches where people really do need a travel agent.”
Johnson’s agency specializes in booking travel for entertainment production companies that do not have the time to arrange their travel for on-location shoots.
Put Yourself Out There
Once you identify the type of client you want to work with, you need to find ways for them to reach you. While marketing on Facebook and Twitter has gotten more attention in the past year, agents should not forget about more traditional avenues for branding. One of the easiest is to purchase an online YellowPages.com directory listing targeted toward a specific region.
“Local searches rank higher than national ones in the majority of online search engines,” said Born.
Another method is to look for support from travel suppliers and your consortium.
“We make all of our resources available to help agents market our products in detail,” said Wiseman. “Likewise, agents should also look to their travel agent consortia for help, too.”
Available resources from travel suppliers and consortia range in scope. Some are as direct as generating sales leads, providing general marketing materials and brochures to even assisting with hosting small events and presentations.
Agents should never underestimate the power of one-on-one face time.
“The number-one way to get a conversation started with first-time clients is to host an event,” said Wiseman. “Events allow agents to attract people on a variety of different points, images or factors.”
Reasons for holding a gathering can be as straightforward as highlighting a specific destination or type of travel, targeting a certain demographic or publicizing a special promotion. When kept on a smaller scale, with only 30-60 people at most, events allow agents to have valuable one-on-one face time with potential clients. Guest speakers, such as a local business development manager or a tour director, also help.
“The people who come will be able to talk to you and, after they have, it tends to stop people from shopping around,” Wiseman added.
Russo said that his agency can acquire new business simply by showing up to local events and consumer shows.
“We do a lot of destination weddings and honeymoons, so we make it a focus to attend bridal shows and expos,” he said. “Focusing on our niche in this way has brought in the most first-time buyers for us. A bride may go to at least three or four of these shows and, when you happen to be the constant denominator at each, it really builds up your reliability.”
Another way for agents to gain recognition in their local community is to pitch in.
For seven years, Kassouf has supported the Center Long Beach, a nonprofit organization that offers counseling, healthcare and youth and elder assistance to the local community. Twice a week, he and his employees personally volunteer at the center, and his agency often holds fundraising events for the organization.
“I definitely believe that through good community service, you will be rewarded financially,” said Kassouf. “We have had several opportunities arise because of our nonprofit work, and we’ll even ask suppliers to co-host fundraising events with us. By holding these events, you attract the types of clients who are more dedicated to a cause, and they usually have higher incomes. The goodwill that you put out there translates into brand recognition in the community that is simply priceless.”
Make Friends of Friends
Another priceless strategy for attracting new clients is to work with the ones you already have. Johnson said that reaching out to family and friends helped her acquire a significant amount of first-time business during her agency’s infancy.
Research supports Johnson’s strategy: The 2010 Portrait of American Travelers found that word-of-mouth endorsements remain the most convincing endorsements for consumers (81 percent cited it as a credible source). The least credible sources, according to the survey, were Facebook and Twitter (19 percent) and YouTube (14 percent).
Establishing a referral program is one of the easiest ways to attract new clientele. The extent to which your agency decides to structure it is flexible. As long as you have one in place, you publicize it among your clients — and you give them plenty of good reason to want to refer your services — you are bound to attract new travelers.
Although recent data suggests that the majority of U.S. travelers do not find social media sites to be highly credible sources for booking or researching travel, an online strategy is an absolute essential for today’s travel agent.
“This group of first-timers, especially younger clients, is more likely to find a travel agent by looking online,” said Born.
According to ASTA’s 2009 Technology and Web Usage Report, 75.2 percent of travel agent respondents have a website and most agencies use their websites to provide an e-mail link to their agency (86.5 percent) or promote their areas of specialty (76.6 percent).
Johnson is currently launching an Internet marketing campaign for her agency that involves online advertisements, blogs, a public relations campaign and the unveiling of a new website.
“Although the core of our business is from repeat customers, the Internet is also definitely helping that increase,” Johnson said.
Kassouf added, “Consumers who go online will make a decision about you by how your site looks. A professional and functional site is a must.”
In terms of accessing social network sites, however, there is room to grow: The same report found that only 29.5 percent of agents surveyed had a LinkedIn account and that only 28.7 percent had a Facebook page.
The most popular social sites used by U.S. travelers today, according to the 2010 Portrait of American Travelers, are TripAdvisor (61 percent), Facebook (32 percent) and YouTube (24 percent). While 46 percent of all travelers surveyed said that they maintain a social networking profile, the percentage of Millennials and Xers who do is larger: 61 percent of Millennials and 54 percent of Xers have a social networking profile. The most popular social networks among those who have profiles are Facebook (91 percent), LinkedIn (24 percent), MySpace (23 percent), Twitter (17 percent) and YouTube (15 percent).
“The core element of social networks is exactly the same as networking via traditional outlets,” said Wiseman. “You are presenting yourself as a valuable asset and entering into a conversation through which you can build trust and rapport on a much wider geographical scale.”
Johnson, Kassouf and DePetris use their agency websites as avenues to their social media outlets by providing link buttons to their Facebook and Twitter accounts, among others. So, even if social networks do not always lead to a direct sale, they contribute to developing your reputation as a valued seller and consultant of travel.
Prove Yourself as an Expert
After you have identified the ways in which you want to reach out to new clients, you must ensure that your reputation precedes you — in a good way — and that it remains consistent.
“If you have a brand and you are willing to work with it, you must be consistent,” said DePetris.
Kassouf added, “And even if your brand is changing, you can still be consistent by providing the same levels of excellent care, attention and service. Every service-oriented organization needs to have a demonstration of value.”
Travel is unique. As agents, you do not just sell travel; you sell an entire experience. Playing up the romance and adventure of travel, as well as the ways in which you can enhance those experiences, are imperative when creating a solid brand and courting new business. Wooing first-time clients is not limited to setting up a Facebook account or hosting a cruise night. It extends to all that you do as a valued travel consultant.
While the methods by which you choose to announce your expertise and value may vary from using social networking sites to sending out direct-mail brochures, the message should always be the same. Specializing in certain types of niche travel is helpful, as is coming up with an “elevator speech,” as Wiseman called it: a short, succinct and clear message that sums up your value and expertise as an agent in less than a minute.
Attracting first-time clients is not a sprint; you must be in it for the long haul. Just as with any personal or business relationship, you have to work at it.
“You are constantly trying to attract new clientele, but there’s really no magic bullet,” said Russo. “It’s more of a process of finding things that work for your particular agency and whatever niche you’re in.”
To find what works for their businesses, agents need not limit themselves.
“You always have to be open to new things,” said Johnson. “I read up on everything and try to absorb everything, not just what’s related to travel. To generate new business, you need to be ahead of the game.”
More than just a game, however, attracting new clients adds value, not only for your business but for you as an agent.
“Even though attracting new clients is hard work, it adds value to you,” said DePetris. “It allows you to keep functioning, and it adds a new injection of freshness into your business. It’s one of the reasons why you got into travel in the first place — because you love it and you want to share it.”