Solving the Perception Problem

Part 5 of an ongoing series about Travel Agents


Perceptions are more important than Reality

Perception - the cheapest fares are on the internet.  Reality - the cheapest fares are through travel agents.  But the truth of the reality is useless unless the marketplace understands and accepts this fact!

The idea that a business executive should spend his valuable and over-committed time arranging his own travel is an extraordinary bit of nonsense that airlines have foisted onto their clients.

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An independent audit of ticket prices in mid-April showed that corporate clients could save an average of 27% if buying their air tickets through a travel agency compared to buying tickets on the internet.

At the time I doubted how well publicized this information would be.  The answer - not at all.  The proof - a survey released this week that reveals a startling 69% of business travelers think that they can find a better fare (presumably on the internet) than can their travel agency.

Ah, but, if you are a travel agent, you will say - 'we provide a better service'.  Maybe so, but this is also not understood.  47% of the people surveyed said that the time it took them to find fares on the internet was justified by the money they saved doing so!

This information should both excite and terrify travel agents.  You should be terrified because, if unrebutted, it spells the death of most corporate travel business.  And you should be excited because the perceptions are just plain wrong.

The reality, as indicated by the earlier survey discussed in my newsletter link above, completely contradicts this mistaken perception.  But, let me ask the travel agents that are reading this - how many of your corporate clients have you directly discussed this with?  What have you done to protect your role as a valuable service provider?  And what are you continuing to do on a regular basis to continue to protect your role?  The airlines and the internet sites are spending millions if not billions of dollars to sell against you - but you have a unique advantage that they do not and never can have.  You have direct, personal, one on one contact with your clients.  The airlines and websites do not.  You can directly manage your clients' understanding of how to best manage their travel needs - if you choose to do so.

Three Reasons for Your Clients to Use Your Services

There are three sustainable offerings that corporate travel agencies can offer their clients.  A good corporate travel agency is (or should be)

  • more convenient for its clients to use
  • providing better values
  • more knowledgeable about their clients' needs, company travel policies, and general travel industry issues and developments

Now, you might think you are all these things - you might even know you are all these things, but what do your clients think?  This is the important issue.  Ask any politician - perceptions are more important than reality!

You need to boil down these three reasons into some simple sound-bites (same as the politicians) and then keep referring to them consistently in all your client contacts.

Of course you also need to ensure that your agency really truly can and does provide these three core services!

Some Simple Steps to Solve the Perception Problem

First of all, copy the press release (alas, no longer online) about the survey showing travel agents get better fares than are available on the internet and distribute it to every client you have (shame on you for not having done this already!).  Keep a spare supply, and give them out to every new customer, and to every prospect.  This is a wonderful validation of your services.

Notice also an earlier press release (also disappeared) on this company's site dated May 2001 that showed smaller savings through travel agencies a year ago.  This completely contradicts 'conventional wisdom' - the gap is widening!  Travel agencies are becoming more and more valuable - so tell your clients this.  As some of us cynics have long been saying, the idea that 'the airline is your friend and wants to help you save money on your airfare' is about as ridiculous an idea as ever existed - so why do so many people seem to now believe it!

Secondly, you need to broaden your clients' perspective when they are assessing convenience.  In truth, it takes no more time to call an airline directly to book a ticket as it does to call your agency.  This should not be the definition of convenience that you use.  Instead, you want to consider the fact that your 'convenient' service is a one stop source for all the travel needs a client might have.

A typical business itinerary will involve an airfare, hotel stays, and perhaps a rental car or limo transfer as well.  And now - which is more convenient : Calling an airline, several different hotels, and a rental car company and tediously making all these different bookings with all these different suppliers, and then having to integrate them all into a single formal itinerary; or placing a simple call to you and having everything done and integrated into a single complete itinerary?

Until such time as the airlines start selling accommodation and rental cars, they'll never be able to match you on this level of convenience!

Thirdly, do all you can to streamline your internal systems so that you really truly are offering a convenient and personalized service.  Create a client database that stores every possible travel like and dislike, every possible preference and quirk, every possible frequent flier number and credit card and meal preference, and so on and so on, so that your clients never need to tell you anything twice.

You'll be able to have wonderfully convenient conversations that make your clients feel very special, such as  'ah, yes, now that we have your flights confirmed, let's arrange your hotel.  I remember that you prefer a king size bed in a non-smoking room, and of course the room has to have a dataport for your laptop, and I see you prefer to be on the 2nd - 6th floor of the hotel, on the quiet side if possible, and you prefer to stay at Hiltons, or, failing that, Sheratons, generally in the four star price range and hopefully not over $150/nt.  That's not a problem, and I'll use your Visa card to hold the room and of course give your Hilton Honors club number when making the booking.'

Help with hotel bookings is a very valuable service to offer.  Many times corporate travelers are not nearly as loyal to hotel chains as they are to airlines, and so being able to get the truly best hotel from several different hotel brands is a great convenience that they can't duplicate by calling hotels directly.

Fourthly - here's another important thing.  You need to be part travel agent and also part salesperson.  You need to be continually selling yourself, your agency, and the value in the services you offer.  Don't feel bad about this - the airlines and websites are spending millions of dollars to sell their services - this is your only viable way of putting your side of the story forward.

Any time you do something special or 'clever', make sure that the client knows about what you have done.  Tell them what you have done - don't be shy!  This is your livelihood at risk, here.  Use phrases like 'I'm sure the airline wouldn't tell you this, but if we do --- then I can save you $---' and, after having done that, validate your service by saying 'Well, that saved you $---.  I bet you're pleased you chose to call us rather than book through the internet/call an airline, aren't you!'

Stay tuned for more suggestions on how to win the perception battle against the internet and airlines.

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Originally written 7 Jun 2002, last update 21 Jul 2020
Copyright 2002 by David M Rowell.
You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.