What does it really take to win the loyalty of travel agents? As the role of the travel expert becomes even more influential, we uncover what it means to offer advisors a truly robust loyalty program that offers more than the usual perks and rewards that everyone has come to expect.
By Dana Baasiri
Rumor has it you can’t buy loyalty, but you can certainly work for it. Travel agents are a tried and true partner for sourcing bookings and driving business growth, and travel and hospitality brands recognize their selling power and influence over consumers. They invest time and money into developing loyalty programs to drive sales and engage travel experts on a deeper level — but are they getting the job done? Ultimately, agents want the kind of support that positions them for growth, success and customer satisfaction.
The industry is swimming in a sea of sameness, and the stark reality is that many loyalty programs often lack the evolution of products, technology and services to meet the demands of today’s travel agent and appeal to the next generation of advisors. It’s not all about the commission and the rewards — yes, that is part of it — but a winning loyalty program offers so much more. Real loyalty shouldn’t have to be earned year after year or be recognized solely on production. It accumulates over time and is based on dependable performance, cooperation, relationships, and most of all, trust.
We sat down with Sandra and Dave Smith, romance travel experts and owners of Directional Strategies Travel, and picked their brain on what travel agents really want out of a robust loyalty program. Here’s what they said:
1. True Partnership
Yes, perks matter. However, true partnership is just as important. For travel agents that means building relationships and working collaboratively with travel and hospitality brands to ensure customer satisfaction. That also means travel and hospitality brands stepping up and demonstrating compassion while guiding agents to growth, despite a rough year for the industry, through one-on-one communication and heightened support. In other words, making sure the partnership feels like a two-way street instead of a narrow road.
Dave Smith explained, ”We need confidence that our clients will be treated well with hospitality, courtesy and good service. We don’t want to worry that our clients might return with complaints. And if something does go wrong, we need to know that our partner will handle it promptly and competently. We don’t hop around from supplier to supplier, doing a little business with a lot of companies. We stick to a small number who have proven themselves to be reliable partners. We give them virtually all of our business and in turn, they show us appreciation for bringing them a significant amount of sales. It’s as simple as ‘We scratch your back and you scratch ours.’”
2. Powerful Sales & Marketing Collaborations
High-impact sales and marketing opportunities that travel brands can extend to their travel partners go a long way, particularly since most agents operate as small businesses with limited resources and budgets. Whether it’s co-op marketing opportunities like media buys, presence at local events and trade shows, radio flyaways, or even influencer collaborations, purposely creating opportunities and partnerships with travel agents in mind will surely drive legacy value and deeper loyalty for your company.
Sandra Smith pointed to her company’s experience, saying, “Our preferred supplier partners’ co-op programs made it possible for us to afford to have booths in a dozen or more bridal shows a year and to advertise in several bridal magazines. That helped to build our brand recognition and attract many new clients. The payoff was fabulous for us and that meant a big return on investment for our supplier partners.”
3. Preferential Perks
As agents invest their own time and money to learn more about your product and sell it to their clients, they find comfort in trusting that you’ll set them up for success and ultimate guest satisfaction. To agents, that could mean no bumping policies, price match guarantees, or early access to promotions. Even something as simple as an added amenity or bonus VIP perk for special clients they send your way. According to David Smith, “Anything our partners can provide to us that gives an edge in the market makes us look good to clients. That means happy clients who bring return business and enthusiastic referrals of new clients.”
4. Robust BDM Support
As the landscape evolves, so should the relationship between a Business Development Manager and an advisor. While the role of a BDM is not new, it is a role that should continuously grow. Travel agents find incredible value in having a dedicated BDM who not only provides ongoing support and transparent communication, but one who works with them to collaborate and develop joint marketing plans, customized training and more. Dave said, “A good BDM becomes a friend who is truly interested in helping our business and in keeping our clients satisfied. A good BDM is someone you can reliably turn to for help with special or unusual circumstances.”
5. Priority Access
It goes without saying that loyalty should unlock some form of access to exclusive news and information. Travel brands that take a “Be the first to know” approach can deepen loyalty and further incentivize them to keep coming back. Whether it’s a new product announcement, special events or promotions, or even a change to your safety protocols, take the time to craft a dedicated communication strategy and include advisors in your SOP. Bottom line is, agents shouldn’t be left in the dark. Sandra added, “It’s all part of being a good friend who has your best interests in mind.”
6. Improved Education & Training
Travel agents are a vault of information. They can answer almost any question a client asks, and will stop at nothing to get them answers to the ones they can’t. They also pride themselves on holding valuable information and “insider” knowledge that will set them apart from their competitors. Their drive for continuous growth, knowledge and training is second to none and they appreciate a partner who will offer them unique opportunities to learn and grow. From engaging certification courses to interactive in-person meet-ups, think beyond the traditional webinar. According to Dave, “The more we know, the more valuable we are in advising our clients. Having detailed insightful knowledge is key to being a successful travel advisor.”
7. Seamless Technology
Although this seems like an obvious one, many loyalty program platforms are antiquated and lack efficient features that make it easy for travel advisors to report bookings and redeem rewards. Some companies struggle to support their multiple brands or properties across one cohesive platform, creating more work for their advisors. It is time-consuming to report and track progress for each and every resort partner, so agents are “selectively loyal” due to the effort required to manage program participation. As a rule of thumb, the simpler the better. As Sandra said, “The easier and less time-consuming the supplier makes handling bookings, the more that advisor can direct attention to the client or to seeking more clients for new bookings.”
Acquiring and retaining the loyalty of travel advisors isn’t one-dimensional. To be successful, travel and hospitality brands must cater to a travel agent’s business model — not the other way around. Doing so will win their loyalty, deepen their advocacy and grow both your business and theirs.
Think it’s time to revamp your travel agent loyalty program? Let’s talk.
Alliance Connection works with Caribbean and Mexico travel brands to drive awareness and bookings through strategic marketing partnerships and powerful brand interactions across a highly selective portfolio of brands, media, and influencers that connect, capture and influence travelers across the U.S.
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