Travel Agents

Are agent-client relationships under threat from suppliers?

Travel agents’ relationships with their clients are essential to their success, so what happens when clients cheat on their agents with suppliers?

Does booking direct – whether it’s a hotel, a tour, flights, or transfers – threaten the trust and loyalty of the agent-client relationship?

And are supplier loyalty programs copping the short end of the stick if travellers stick with their agent?

We donned our investigative hat and asked a few industry big wigs for their honest opinions.

Penny Spencer, Founder and Owner of Spencer Travel Group, told Travel Weekly she doesn’t feel loyalty programs are at risk of being disrupted by agents.

“I don’t see this affecting loyalty programs as they can still have the relationship with us and be part of the loyalty program with the supplier – we in fact help to ensure they are choosing the right product to increase their loyalty,” she said.

On the other hand, Barry Mayo from House of Travel told TW, “Knowing and understanding a client’s preferences and being available whenever required is critical to providing reliable personal service tailored to a client’s likes and dislikes.”

“With this depth of understanding, a personal travel manager is in a position to add value and to maximise the opportunity that supplier loyalty programs offer,” he added.

Roy Merricks, Managing Director of Mobile Travel Agents (MTA), thinks there’s a big gap between a loyalty program and what travel agents offer.

“Supplier loyalty programs are popular, because in many ways for clients it seems like ‘something for nothing’, but these programs don’t necessarily affect the final choice decision when guided by a good travel advisor,” he said.

“It’s our experience that most clients are members of multiple loyalty programs and generally willing to join a new one if there’s a benefit for a particular trip.”

“Advice, experience and value-ads provided by travel advisors are more compelling to many, though, at the end of the day. The stronger the relationship between the client and advisor the more effective this becomes… it’s vital for advisors to become a specialist in the client!”

So is it a threat to agents when suppliers such as hotels or cruise lines advertise to book direct rather than through agents?

In Spencer’s opinion, it’s a pretty hazardous trend.

“Absolutely, and this is one of the issues of trust that we have with some suppliers – we may have introduced the client to the product and they then get them onto their database to contact directly and bypass the agent,” Spencer told TW.

“Some suppliers, though, on the other hand, will still pay us the commission even if the client has booked direct but is a known client of ours,” she said.

Similarly, Mayo spoke of a possible ‘disservice’ to clients in relation to booking directly.

“If a supplier advertises book direct in preference to an agent where a strong and close personal client/agent relationship exists, it is likely they are doing the client and themselves a disservice while at the same time jeopardising their supplier/agent relationship (assuming one exists).”

“TravelManagers has over many years built strong and effective partner supplier relationships that are based on mutual trust and respect and we don’t expect any of our partner suppliers to knowingly encourage direct bookings,” he added.

Merricks however, is it not as convinced, citing OTAs as a bigger threat to supplier loyalty programs than agents could ever be.

“It’s understandable that suppliers can’t rely completely on a distribution channel they don’t control,” he said.

“Suppliers compete with each other by offering more and more with their respective programs, then try to claw money back from the distribution chain, including OTAs, which are their real target affecting profitability through inventory far more than travel agents.”

“It’s not really a threat to agents with advisors who are trusted by their clients.”

Back in May, the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) CEO Zane Kerby said rather than fight to stop the ‘clicking around’ behaviours of travellers, travel agents should try and be a part of it.

Per Travel Weekly US, Kerby was responding to a customer survey done by ASTA, which showed that consumers like to “click around”, but this doesn’t mean travel agents have to be excluded.

“We are not taking away the consumer’s ability to click around,” Kerby said.

“The travel agent’s message has to be, ‘Get out and see everything online, and then come talk to me, or while you’re doing it, let’s do it together.”

“You’ve got to snuggle up to all of your customers,” he said. “Good [customer relationship management] is really important.”


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