In late August, we were looking for a few people to be in a focus group for us. We wanted to see what our current clients’ and fans’ impressions were when it came to working with a travel professional. I can tell you that we were very surprised by the responses. It was clear that many people really don’t understand a lot about the travel agency business from how we work to the value that we provide.
This made me reflect on the industry and how, over time, we have gotten away from what it means to be a professional in this business. I came to the realization that our industry has done a lot of harm to the professional agencies and agents out there.
There are too many people who I have talked to over the years as a business owner who have said “I want to be a travel agent, you guys all have so much fun.” or “I plan things for my friends already, why shouldn’t I get paid for it?”. While it might be true that anyone can hang a shingle up and call themselves a travel agent, it takes a real dedicated individual to be a true professional. And this doesn’t come cheap.
Being a travel professional takes a lot of skills and yes, money as well. Any true professional will tell you that to run a successful business that is legitimate, there are a lot of ingredients. To start out, you need to be recognized as a travel agency. This is the easiest part of the recipe. Anyone can do this. You pay a fee, fill out an application and bam! you’re a travel agency. Now you can start making thousands of dollars booking airfare, car rentals and hotels for clients! And if you believe that, I’ve got some swamp land to sell you!
While it is true that travel agents make a commission on many of the reservations we book for you, we certainly don’t make thousands of dollars and in some cases, anything at all on bookings that we do. The majority of the time, we make nothing on airfare if we don’t charge you a fee. And think about your car rentals. How much can we really be making when your rate is $20 a day? With hotels, some discounted rates are non-commissionable. So why do we do it? In many cases, it’s because we love to plan travel, but mostly it is because we believe that you will come back to us and book other trips where we will make a commission, though that isn’t always the case.
Next in our recipe, you need to have some basics for running a business – several kinds of insurance, business papers, registrations, permits and licenses, you consult an attorney and an accountant, you research the laws in all of the states you plan to do business in (some of those requiring you to register, get permits and licenses there as well!), you get a website and phone lines. Graphics, logos, content all is needed. If you don’t know how to do that on your own, you outsource it for a fee. You get a CRM to manage your potential leads and clients and figure out how to do marketing.
Then you continue learning. Sure, you may be an expert at traveling to Disney World, but what about the airlines? What about transfers, car rentals, insurance? What if your first client wants to go to the Canary Islands instead (yes, that did happen to me)? Not only do you have to learn what you are selling, but you also have to continue to learn because things change all the time. DOT rules, TSA guidelines, park security, legal entry requirements and regulations, CDC and State Department travel warnings.
Being a travel professional takes a lot of hard work and continued development. When I started in the industry, I gravitated towards cruise vacations. I took a certification course in cruising and cruise lines. Once I achieved that certification, I started working on the next one, more advanced. After I earned that certification, I started the next once, finally reaching the Elite Cruise Counsellor with Cruise Line International Association (CLIA). CLIA also offered a Luxury Cruise Specialist program at the time, so I enrolled to learn even more. Why did I do it? To be able to offer a more diverse set of cruise lines to fit any of my clients’ needs now and in the future. When I started in my company, I had only booked Disney Cruise Lines, Royal Caribbean Cruise Line and Celebrity Cruises. Today, I have also booked Regent, Oceania, Azamara, Viking Ocean Cruises, Viking River Cruises, Avalon Waterways, AMA Waterways and all the other contemporary and premium lines sailing today. My education has allowed me to fit the right cruise line with the client.
So now, I can’t go any higher with CLIA so it’s time to stop learning, right? WRONG! I moved on to The Travel Institute. Just this last week, I received my certificate showing that I am a Certified Travel Associate. What I like about this designation is that they require me to take continuing education each year to stay certified. There is no way to just put down the books or log off the computer and stop learning. I can’t.
You may wonder how these certifications that I have and the endless hours of classes that I continue to take and research that I do will help my clients. All of this helps me to be able to quickly assess my client’s travel wishes and dreams and make them a reality in less time and considerably less effort than doing it alone. I can only hope that my clients appreciate the value in this.
Keep this in mind when working with a travel professional. A true professional has a lot invested in their career. A lot of time, effort and money invested. It is their job to help you with your travel decisions and plans. While it is fun much of the time, it is a job and it is work. There are many times when the amount of work you are asking them to do just simply doesn’t pay for their time doing the job. You wouldn’t go to a doctor and say “I’ll buy the prescription that you want me to get, but I’m not paying you for your diagnosis”. Sometimes a fee is warranted.