As multiple forecasts predict continued growth in corporate travel, its no surprise that many travel agencies hitch their fortunes to this potentially profitable segment. But without the right technology, training and business strategy, ill-prepared agents may fall flat when trying to navigate the complex factors that affect how business travel is sold.
The segments appeal is easy to understand. Worldwide business travel is expected to increase 3.7 percent a year over the next decade, according to a recent report by the World Travel & Tourism Council and Travelport. In the United States alone, companies spent $424 billion on corporate travel in 2016, according to the Global Business Travel Association (GBTA). And 86 percent of business travel-focused travel agents expected bookings to remain high or grow even more this year, according to the 2017 Business Travel Trends Survey conducted by Travel Leaders Group.
All that means big money for agencies that understand how to serve the market.
While business and leisure travel may share some common elements, they are decidedly not the samewhich makes specialization crucial for agents who are serious about growth.
The leisure traveler is buying a destination. The business traveler is buying the journey, says Dave Hershberger, president of Travel Leaders/Prestige Travel in Cincinnati, Ohio. The fun side is leisure travel, but corporate is where most companies, like mine, are going to make most of their money.
Christy Prescott, CEO of Corporate Travel Planners in San Antonio, Texas, describes the subtle variations in approach that are necessary for success. The largest difference between selling leisure and corporate are the nuances, she says. Within corporate travel, exceptional service is the differentiator between travel management companies. While corporate agents make sales based off of price and schedulethe customers real preference is high-touch, world-class service.
As in any business, you have to spend money to make moneyand investment in technology and productivity tools should be a priority, according to Jay Ellenby, president of Safe Harbors Business Travel in Bel Air, Maryland. To be in the corporate travel marketplace, you really have to be loaded up to provide the technology features, such as online booking systems, he explains. You have to have office technology, you have to have mid-office systems and a program that supports that. And in addition to technology, you have to have the reporting that corporations expect, the data that they can use to make decisions.
Prescott uses one word repeatedly when asked about her keys to success. The most important tools today are automation, automation, automation, she says. Within business travel sales, its paramount to have a robust mid-office tool alongside the online booking tool, allowing travelers the freedom to make their own choices. Whats more, automation allows travel managers peace of mind, knowing their policies are enforced.
Corporate travel policies might come from the client side, but they arent a one-way street. Data derived from an agencys own technological tools can aid the development of a clients policy, says Ellenby. Our philosophy is that every policy, every company is different and we have to respect and support the travel policy initiatives of every company, he says. But were always working with our clients to maintain travel policies, because travel and issues are changing daily, and we want to make sure that our companies are updating them.
Hershberger notes that sometimes his agency must take the lead in formulating a clients travel policy. Believe it or not, some companies we start with dont have one, he says. But a complicated corporate travel policy doesnt necessarily make it better. A well-written one, a well thought-out one and one that addresses your major concerns is what works best.
Thats why policy is one of the first topics that Hershberger brings up with new clients. One of the first things we ask is, Do you have a corporate travel policy? And if they dont, we say, Lets work on one together, and here are some suggestions for it. Thats how theyre going to see the real benefits of working with a travel management company. Travel management companies and travel policies go hand in hand. Its a great way to enforce a policy and its a great way to build an effective one.
Both Safe Harbors Business Travel and Travel Leaders/Prestige Travel take a similar approach to policies related to supplier partners: Respect for the clients supplier relationships, coupled with readiness to offer help and ideas for improvement. If a company has supplier partners, we honor them and support them, Ellenby says. And we always look at what can we do to tweak or help that relationship with a supplier and make it even more manageable for our client.
Hershberger also notes that his agencys own relationships with suppliers can work to a clients advantage. For us, its really a customers call, he says. We never lead with a particular supplier unless the client has no choices. But we have certain vendors we work with that offer special discounts to our clients.
If a company is only as good as its staff, then providing appropriate training is imperative. Ellenbys agency takes a multi-pronged approach to education. We constantly do customer service training, he says. Thats the core of what we provide. We also do ad hoc training when necessary, when new products become available. We invest quite a bit of time and resources to make sure that our team is fully up to speed.
Hershberger tailors his staff training to fit different clients, and he takes advantage of various educational opportunities. A good consortium will have good travel agent tools in the training arena, he says. One phenomenal thing that Travel Leaders does a couple times each summer is to fly corporate agents someplace and show them behind the scenes at the airport, with the airline reservation system and at a car rental facility. I had an agent go last year and she just raved about it.
The changing demographics of todays business traveler is also a topic that deserves attention. The effect of Millennial travelers, for example, cannot be understated, according to Hershberger. Its the biggest growing segment in the corporate world, he says. The difference between Millennials and Boomers or Gen Xers is that they dont want to talk to you. I hate to generalize; obviously there are exceptions. But Millennials want to text you, they want to email you, they want to use an online booking tool and they want to be contacted by mobile device much more than other generations do.
Ellenby agrees that Millennials differ from older travelers in myriad ways. Millennials have an interest in the sharing economy for rooms and rides, he says. That makes it necessary for agencies to be current about new options and their effect on issues like corporate travel policies. We have to stay on top of all the new entrants into the market.
In addition, Prescott notes, Millennials do not buy into their parents never take a vacation day/work 80 hours a week mantra. They believe in bleeding their business and personal lives together and creating extended bleisure trips. That tendency can naturally create additional sales opportunities for travel agencies.
Selling corporate travel is an intricate endeavor. So is there an overarching philosophy that can lead an agency to success? Thats the $64,000 question, says Hershberger. There is no one easy way to do this.
Still, he has some suggestions. A lot of agencies make the mistake of having an account manager/salesperson, and that just doesnt work, he says. You have to have a full-time salesperson, and they have to be beating the bushes. We also have a full-time account manager. Both of those are absolute bare necessities to have a successful corporate travel program. It doesnt do any good to have a great salesperson if then you dont maintain that account.
Also essential, according to Ellenby, is a dedication to customer service. Sometimes you can take customer service for granted, and thats a bad place to be, he says. Wed better be good at other things, but if we cant provide good customer service training, then it doesnt separate us from our competition.
Prescott says that existing clients can be a valuable source of new opportunities. Organic growth within an existing account can be built with additional services, such as small meetings, incentive travel, etc., she explains. Find what you do best and build that platform.
A positive attitude can also work wonders, adds Hershberger. You just have to keep plugging at it, he advises. You need to stay with the times. You need to upgrade your technology. You need to have good staff. You need to treat your staff well so they treat your customers well. If you have one bad day, it doesnt work. Every day you have to show up and deliver.
Aligning with a consortium or franchise can resolve some of the trickiest aspects of achieving success in the corporate travel segment. And Travel Leadersone of North Americas largest travel companiesfeatures a number of tools and benefits for agencies hungry for growth.
Its never easy to grow corporate travel business in a hyper-competitive market, and it isnt going to get any easier, says Michael Boult, senior vice president of corporate sales for Travel Leaders. By aligning with Travel Leaders Network, ambitious agencies keep what is special about their business and bring on a partner who provides access and management to help them to grow their business.
The benefits of partnering with a consortium are multifold, according to Boult. Many excellent small agencies plateau, and without significant investments in people, technology and processes, they struggle to build corporate business outside of their natural but constrained geographic market, he explains. Agencies who join Travel Leaders Network receive the latest travel technologies, unique rates and value-adds from a broad range of global suppliers. They also receive proven training programs that ensure maximum results from agents, account managers and sales resources, access to multinational fulfillment when clients expand and ultimately a team of industry experts who care about their success.
The company maintains a laser-like focus to create success for its member agencies, Boult says. The Travel Leaders Network Business Travel Center of Excellence is organized around four key principles: lead generation, sales, implementation and customer success, he notes. We believe optimizing this cycle ensures the success of our partners.
As part of these principles, Travel Leaders manages online agency profiles and invests in search engine marketing. They also provide specialized and immersive sales training and dozens of project plans to support all the facets of the implementation process with new customers.
In addition, Boult notes, We provide ongoing training for account managers, to transform their existing customer relationships to support the notion of customer for life, by proving and resetting the type of value the agency is providing to the customer.
Affiliation with the Travel Leaders Network also helps agencies deal with complicated issues like duty of care. We see increasing levels of investment and innovation from new entrants who are bringing powerful new solutions to the market, Boult says. We have long-standing relationships with multiple vendors and most recently launched an RFI so that we can identify new opportunities to improve our solutions further. We look forward to analyzing responses and enhancing this critical service.
The companys business travel site, TravelLeadersBusiness.com, is designed to ensure maximum exposure in key online search environments, according to Boult. We invest heavily in promoting this website and the results have been impressive with thousands of leads generated since we launched in late 2016. The profiles are easy to maintain and update. Most importantly, they are being found by the right audience and business is being contracted efficiently. For more information on opportunities with Travel Leaders Network, visit TravelLeadersNetwork.com.
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