Eight Top-Secret Questions to Ask When Choosing A Travel Agent
You’ve decided to choose and hire a travel agent. How do you sift among the many companies locally and nationally? How do you choose between a large firm or a boutique service agency and know you’ve chosen the right person to entrust with your valued leisure time? You require information about the person who will be researching recommending and handling all your travel details in order to make an informed decision. Consider the following eight questions to assist you in your decision making process:
1. Major Industry Credentials: “What major industry certifications do you have, for example from The Travel Institute or CLIA?” You should expect your travel agent to hold at least one certification from either the Travel Institute, or the Cruise Line Industry Association (CLIA for short). Yes, it’s true here as in every field that not every person who holds a credential is really good, and not everyone who doesn’t is bad. However, if a professional is serious about what they do, they should have one or two of the following under their belt, the higher the better. This is especially true of those in the industry more than 5 years. Note that other minor certifications by product, brand companies, or destinations, while excellent, do not count as major industry credentials.
- Simplified grid of Travel Industry certifications – USA specific,
1 CTA Certified Travel Associate
2 CTC Certified Travel Counselor
3 CTIE Certified Travel Industry Executive
Cruise Line Industry Association (CLIA)
1 ACC Accredited Cruise Counselor
2 MCC Master Cruise Counselor
3 ECC Elite Cruise Counselor
2. Formal Training or Prior Background: “What is your background before becoming an agent, or what formal training have you had to become an agent?” You don’t necessarily want Joe the mechanic as your travel agent… at least not without a good story as to how he became interested in travel and the circumstances leading up to it. Formal training is not common these days, although there are still a handful of colleges or travel schools operating. Beware of the $199 learn-to-be-an agent companies (which thankfully are on the wane thanks to aggressive state attorney’s offices); current red flag names include Joystar and YTB (Your Travel Bureau) both of which are entangled in financial and legal fights for long lists of wrongdoings. If the “travel agent” is spending more time telling you how you can make money selling travel and “travel for FREE”, run, don’t walk, away. In place of formal training, look for complimentary experience in customer service, sales, travel and leisure, retail, or other natural transits into the industry.
3. Length of Experience As an Agent: “How long have you been a Travel Agent?” Too long is not necessarily too good, and too short is not necessarily too bad depending on past experience and the way in which the agent does business. Sadly, our industry harbors many fossils that continue to do business the same way they have done it since the dawn of time immemorial, or at the very least the invention of the very first airline reservations computer system. Change is a very difficult if nigh an impossible thing for them and they adopt new tools, methods, products, and business models slowly if at all. These agents may be a wealth of knowledge (or not; they could just be good sales people), and certainly know their way around what they know. One last comment on the old-timers… if you decide to hire one for your vacation planning, make sure they have one or two of the higher level industry designations from CLIA or the Travel Institute: otherwise, your next question should be “You’ve been selling travel that long and only have a CTA….Why?” On the other end of the extreme are the Newbies… those starting out in the travel industry. Depending on their background, fresh blood may not be a bad thing in contrast with the fossils above, especially if they already possess credentials. On the other hand, those new to the workplace in general, or those transitioning from strictly sales or low skill backgrounds would not make the best consultants until a few more years under their belts at the very least.
4. Personal Travel: “How often do you travel? Have you been to Europe/South America or on a cruise?” The saddest fact in our industry is that most travel agents are sellers of travel, with limited personal travel experience similar to everyone else; the image of travel agents going on free trips, gallivanting the globe are patently false… while there are certainly educational travel opportunities out there, it’s real work and not very commonly available. We once met an agent on a cruise and quickly found out it was his first; he was retired from being a travel agent in the business for over three decades; our immediate thought was that perhaps he was in corporate travel, which would explain why this was his first cruise, or perhaps even that he didn’t sell cruises… to our surprise he gingerly replied that he sold several, sometimes dozens, of cruises a week for many years prior to retirement, and could give us no explanation (aquaphobia perhaps?) as to why he had never in over thirty years considered purchasing a product he sold day in and day out to his clients. Would you eat at are restaurant where your server had never, in the years they’d worked there, ever tasted the food? What about buying a computer from a store where the salesperson had never used one or never sent a single email, for his entire career? That said, it’s ok if your agent doesn’t have extensive first-hand experience of every product or destination … no one agent can know everything. However, you will benefit from agents with extensive personal travel experience, particularly diverse experience of various products and to less common destinations as these professionals will have the first hand knowledge and tricks to make your dream plans successful for years to come. Good follow up questions are “When was your last vacation, where did you go, do you have photos or an online travel journal I can look at?”. Also helpful is “Where and when are your next trips”… the answer should be quickly forthcoming for at least one long vacation or as a group leader, less would indicate a travel seller that spends too much time behind a desk and computer and may not be as keenly aware of the nuances of travel as those who travel, vacation, or even lead groups regularly.
5. Wholesale Options: “What wholesale or agent-only options do you have for hotel and air?” Agencies have numerous options for booking bulk rates on air and hotel… not all of which are appropriate to all situations, nor helpful for all clients. However, having these channels available through a knowledgeable agent will offer you booking options and value simply impossible through the internet or on your own direct. By way of example for hotels, reputable long-established companies such as CCRA and TravelBound only work through agents. When available, hotel packages through TravelBound, for example, are almost unbeatable for independent travelers looking for value and inclusive pricing; search all you want online, but then call a travel agent to book as you’ll not be able to receive your final confirmations otherwise. Other travel companies such as GoGo Worldwide Vacations package land, air and other travel activities at attractive pricing which, again, is only available through travel agents. Lastly for airfare, there are traditional and more recent consolidator wholesalers…. Your agent should at least be familiar with air consolidation tickets and have those to offer you. While a consolidator ticket may not always be the best for you, having that option again indicates you are dealing with a well rounded agent that will work on your behalf to find value not available to you directly.
6. Preferred Companies and Limitations: “Who are your top preferred suppliers/companies? And, do you have to use them exclusively or can you arrange my travel with others?” The key here is flexibility and availability of options. In trying and difficult financial times, many agencies both online and traditional are directing traveler business to their preferred suppliers. Preferred suppliers means many things, including ability to obtain specials and value-additions for clients. Note, however, that preferred suppliers also provide increased revenue and higher commissions to agencies; while this may be good for the agent, it is not always good for the consumer. A great agent will have several preferred suppliers, and will respond that other options are always available depending on the clients needs. The ‘incorrect’ answer to the above questions is Yes we use our preferred suppliers exclusively; no matter the reasoning, logic, or justification, this limitation is never in the consumer’s best interest as it narrows down the options available to the agent.
7. Consultant or Order Taker?: “How long will you need to find the right trip for me?” What the consumer is looking for here is someone who is willing to research the right vacation experience. Even if there has already been some independent research and the client is ready to buy, a good travel agent would ask if you are open to other options; if this is an initial call to ask for what is available, be wary of the agent who immediately quotes you the best deal. Sure, it’s possible they just booked one client before you. It’s even possible they send clients there all the time, but are you the same as the last person? Shouldn’t the agent at least ask a few questions about your likes and dislikes, your travel preferences before putting a “deal” before your eyes? Your judgment will need to guide you here, but if you reach someone who wants you to spoon feed them your date and destination and expects to give you a price on the spot, you’ve reached an order taker: the lowest value adding agent on the totem pole. Although individuals all vary and you can find excellent agents anywhere, the typical “club” travel agents are good examples of order takers; they crowd the space at consumer travel shows, luring in travelers with coupons and “show only” pricing with the sole purpose of taking your booking. An order taker will give you the same time, attention and service after the sale, as they give you before, which is to say little to none at all.
8. Trick Bonus Question: “Why should I hire you instead of another agent?” This is the dreaded open-ended question which obviously has no right or wrong answer. Its purpose is to gauge the travel agent’s personality, professionalism, and overall ‘whole package’ they are bringing to your table. If they’ve passed muster this far, it’s already saying a great deal about their capabilities, so you should be very forgiving. If, however, some things are not in place, you may use this question as the ‘gut-o-meter’ indicator and go with your instincts.
You will notice from the above that there was never a mention of price. There’s always a lower price out there, often tied to lower quality, and –most importantly- lower value. The travel agent’s best capability is in excavating undiscovered value for our clients by getting to know their needs and desired experiences, and matching that with the product, destination, and experiences available. In this regard, value, not price is the new competitive advantage. What may be a bargain for one person, requiring 5am flights and three connections to the Caribbean to indulge in buffets in an all-inclusive cheapie package may be a nightmare for someone else looking to relax and escape. A slight variation in the product, a bit more cost, can deliver tremendously more value and the right experience for that client and a good travel agent knows the differences and will steer the travel down the correct path.
As with every profession and skill in our world, the travel agent is a consultant, an expert one goes to for their expertise and unique knowledge. Skills, competencies, and quality of service vary by the individual. By asking the right questions, you can ensure your expert consultant is knowledgeable and possesses the right mix of skills, background, and experience to plan your dream vacation.
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