SPECIAL ISSUE: Targeting Your Niche

Specialization, a growing trend -- Agents are finding success in today's turbulent travel industry by adding more value and expertise

By: Lisa Jennings and R. Scott Macintosh

Maureen Jones, president of All Horizons Travel, doesn’t bill herself as an agent who can sell any vacation to any destination to any kind of traveler.

But for clients looking for specific advice on, say, island hopping in Australia’s Queensland region, or hiking through New Zealand’s Milford Sound area, Jones is an expert.

A destination specialist in 29 countries, Jones is particularly well-versed in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and her native Scotland. She visits these countries at least once a year, and can offer up-to-date, first-hand advice about everything from lodging to the regional lingo.

Her clients don’t complain about paying the $100 consulting fee she charges because they know she is selling a particular level of expertise.

“I think agents that aren’t experts are not going to survive,” predicts Jones.

That statement sums up a current trend in the selling of travel as thousands of agents embrace the concept of specialization to compete in an increasingly complex and rapidly changing travel industry.

The decline of airline commissions and travel in general, as well as the rise of consumer use of the Internet and direct bookings, has caused agents to look for better ways of doing business.

And for many agents, success has come with a focus on a particular niche.

A niche can be a certain type of product, such as soft-adventure tours, or a specific market, such as gays and lesbians.

It can be broad (“senior travelers”) or narrow (“diving in Southeast Asia”), but developing a niche specialty can give an agency a special identity and position in the market, said Bruce B. Tepper, vice president at the travel industry consulting firm of Joselyn, Tepper & Associates.

It can also help agents build a solid client list and make the most of advertising and marketing efforts.

“From the consumer perspective, it allows them to buy from a specialist,” said Tepper. “From the travel agent perspective, it allows you to establish expertise in something. It looks good on the sign. And it’s true in any field.”

Specialization is growing, said Robin Fetsch, vice president of operations at Cape Wineland Tours, a specialty wine tour company based in Falls Church, Va.

Fetsch has been involved in niche travel since 1987, when she started her own travel agency selling religious, cultural and historical travel tours. She also has written coursework for ASTA’s specialty niche marketing classes and teaches at a local community college.

There is growing realization that surviving and thriving in this business requires adding more value in expertise, said Fetsch.

“That’s what people will pay for,” she said. “By specializing, you become a travel professional and offer something that isn’t out there on the Internet.”

Good specialists also can add features for their clients that don’t have price tags, such as recommending a hidden restaurant that becomes the highlight of the experience for a traveler, or being able to arrange a special visit or side trip that isn’t available to general travelers.

But she notes some dangers. “You cannot just concentrate on one niche because you don’t know what the world will turn into,” she said.

Fetsch, for example, once focused primarily on travel to the Middle East, which in the current political climate would not be a good idea. So Fetsch switched her focus to South African wine tours.

“When you have a niche you have to be flexible,” she said. “You need to look at the trends of the population and try to stay ahead of them.”

Another danger of specializing is that you can get into a rut, Fetsch added. And, she said, “If you niche too much you don’t get repeat clientele.”

Hot areas of specialty include soft-adventure travel, spa destinations, food-and-wine tours, sports tours and, adds Fetsch, book club travel, such as Harry Potter-themed trips to the United Kingdom.

Nice resorts also have special programs in which agents can develop niche expertise, including health and wellness, weight loss and smoking cessation.

For home-based agent Liz Vollan, president of Aim Higher Travel in the Chicago area, a focus on solo travelers has been a boon.

Said Vollan: “You need a niche because, when your business is mainly on the Internet, if you’re a generalist, you’ll get lost in the hoards.”