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Report: Getting Technical

For the modern travel agent, the use of websites, social media and mobile apps isn’t only good for business: it’s a customer service necessity. By Britney Hope

 

The business of selling travel has always relied on the success of three things: product expertise, excellent customer service and referrals. But just as the travel world itself continues to evolve at breakneck speed, consumers’ habits are changing rapidly as well, and people are becoming more reliant on web-based technologies.

Today’s typical consumer loves to conduct research, is attracted to companies that reflect their values, and seeks immediate personalized service. According to a report by digital advertising company Criteo, retailers that manage to accommodate these needs across their websites, social media platforms and communication tools will be the ones who come out on top.

As such, it’s no longer enough for agencies to have a simple landing page with a storefront address and phone number encouraging prospective travelers to call; these days, consultants need a glossy, professional website, a healthy social media presence and, most importantly, mobile technology in order to appear legitimate in the eyes of the consumer.

For Linda Dean, vice president of retail branch operations at ALTOUR, different kinds of technology serve different purposes, and their success relies on cooperation.
“Our leads generally come from our website, but we have many posts on our Facebook page that connect people to the site as well,” she says. “We also have a blog that is updated about twice a month, which also links to our website. So, in many ways, they’re always connected.”
With that said, many travel professionals claim that while juggling a website, social presence and a blog is all well and good, it’s mobile technology — more specifically, apps and instant messaging — that should be the highest priority.

Lisa Israelovitch, CEO of the leading mobile trip-planning tool Umapped, believes that in order for agents to remain competitive in a world where travelers can reliably research and plan their trip for free, embracing mobile technology is an absolute must.

“Whenever travelers book online, Google Trips or other B2C itinerary apps step in to organize their bookings, provide recommendations and real-time updates,” she says. “Travelers expect — and deserve — this level of service and convenience from their trusted advisors.” In addition to providing agents with innovative itinerary programs and a plethora of instant messaging options, mobile application technology is also ushering in a new age of digital purchasing that allows travelers to book directly with their agents without ever having to visit a storefront.

For many, specially designed transactional apps are a game changer that can’t be ignored in favor of mobile-friendly website interfaces. Criteo’s State of Mobile Commerce H1 2016 report found that mobile apps experienced a higher retention rate in new users than mobile browsers alone, indicating consumers prefer businesses that combine website information, instant messaging and a way to book and pay for their trips into a single smartphone app.
So, does this mean that all travel consultants should keep ahead of the digital curve, regardless of their size or function? Wendy Goodenow, owner of Hawaii-based HNL Travel Associates, an agency celebrating its 30th anniversary in July, claims it depends on the client.

“We still use email and the phone more than anything,” she says. “We’ve got long-standing clients and that’s the way they like it. We’ve been challenged by the younger folks, however, as most of them want answers yesterday.”

Goodenow’s situation isn’t uncommon; many agencies find it difficult to adapt to the digital-heavy demands of millennials.
However, according to The Travel Agent of the Future report by Skift, millennials are increasingly the demographic most likely to use a travel agent, due to their desire for personalized, expert service, and the only way to remain competitive in the long run is to learn to speak their language.

Regardless of how much or little time and money one wants to invest, it’s clear that technology presents some interesting new opportunities for agents. Mobile applications that feature instant messaging, for instance, allow agents to remain in a client’s back pocket while delivering an enhanced and personalized service, according to a report by Michelle Evans, digital consumer manager at Euromonitor International.

Besides, agents aren’t expected to maintain their various digital platforms all on their own — in fact, it’s recommended that they don’t. Whether designing and maintaining a website, or adopting cutting-edge mobile tools, many agents outsource to third party companies with the intention of remaining focused on client services.

Isrealovitch, whose company also provides white label customization so agents can apply their own branding to client-facing materials, says while it can be tempting to want to oversee tech projects personally, it’s easy to get in over one’s head — and lose sight of what’s important.

“Many travel brands that try to build tech in-house think this is the only way to get the outcome they desire, given the custom requirements,” she says. “In addition to this being a potential distraction from their core business of selling travel, it’s typically more expensive to set up and maintain.”

Of course, many agents prefer to manage their own social media presence, allowing them to remain reactive to online activity. Damian McCabe, CEO of McCabe World Travel, Inc., chooses to handle her own website and Facebook page because, she says, “It allows us to make quick changes dictated by market demands.” However, McCabe goes elsewhere for her mobile trip itineraries, because the technology is more advanced.

While determining whether or not to outsource digital needs seems contingent on preference, studies show that consumers are increasingly more likely to make purchases with businesses that offer fast, accessible and personalized functions through branded technology such as mobile applications. The good news is that digital tools are becoming more and more accessible to users of all skill levels, due in part to the seamless role mobile technology plays in daily life.

Regardless of how digitally connected an agency decides to be, the most important thing for a consultant to remember is that technology shouldn’t be seen as a threat to their business. This can be tempting, given the rise of OTAs and online booking engines, but as Skift’s report indicates, an excess of information online is actually driving the consumer back to the travel agent, resulting in more tools that combine automation with real-time human communication, addressing an increasing desire to ‘talk to a real person’.

As such, the relationship between travel agents and digital technology isn’t only proving to be a marriage of convenience, efficiency and connectivity — it’s also paving the way for stronger client-agent relationships as a whole.

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