Travel specialists are more relevant than ever in today’s travel market.
There are no more secrets when it comes to travel. What was once considered insider knowledge is now widely available on the internet. Traveler reviews, blogs, ranked lists — the trip planning process has officially been democratized, and it would be easy to assume that travel agents are a dying breed.
Not if you’re delivering a high-value planning experience that can’t be found anywhere else. In fact, local travel agents are more crucial than ever in helping travelers sift through the overwhelming amount of opinion-driven information online to select only the relevant parts for each trip.
If you’re planning trips for the discerning travelers of today, you should be aware of these intersecting trends:
- More than ever before, travelers value the quality of their trips over simply getting a good deal. For frequent travelers, it’s important that each experience is unique and memorable, not just a way to check another destination off the list.
- Travelers may try a few different trip planning avenues before choosing what they feel is the best fit.
- It’s up to you to prove your value and offer an unforgettable first planning experience.
We’ve analyzed the planning process for roughly 20,000 travelers over the past four years across more than 90 destinations. The travelers are mostly from the U.S., generally travel for seven to 10 days, and the age of the primary planner varies from 20 to 65 and older. Here’s what we learned.
Below are a few key points it’s imperative you get right for every traveler, including establishing trust, paying attention to details, proving your local insight and expertise, and providing concrete yet flexible recommendations.
It’s all about trust.
Travelers are trusting you with a huge responsibility: planning and executing one of their most memorable life experiences. The trip is a big deal to them and should feel that it’s a big deal to you as well; it’s important they know that you will account for all details, large and small.
If you establish early trust with the traveler, you give yourself latitude to make unique recommendations they may have not heard or read about. Perhaps there are seasonal considerations or lesser-known alternatives to popular sights or activities. Maybe you recommend removing a few things from the “must-see list” to allow for a better pace or more spontaneity. When you thoughtfully balance your knowledge with their desires, travelers will feel comfortable giving you more leeway to tap into your expertise and create a wonderful experience for them.
What IS a travel specialist?
As a travel specialist, you often face competing priorities. Someone may ask for an active, off-the-beaten-path experience that also covers a destination’s popular highlights — and they have exactly one week to do it all.
How do you strike the right balance between delivering what the traveler asks for, and offering expertise-driven recommendations? To answer that question, keep these points in mind:
- This person or group of people are working with you to maximize the value of their trip (which can mean different things to different people).
- You’ll have to deliver what the traveler asks for as best you can, while guiding them with your local expertise.
- You are not just a replacement booking engine, or cliff notes for a guide book. You’re a professional with experience and a person with sensitivities to others’ needs.
Demonstrating your expertise while leaving room to accommodate a traveler’s vision can be a bit of a juggling act. Keep these things in mind:
Lead with your ideas, not your questions.
It might seem natural to compile a list of important questions to ask the traveler. Once you have their detailed answers, you can set about designing the perfectly crafted custom itinerary. But this approach makes two assumptions:
- The traveler replies to your list of questions.
- The traveler knows how to answer your questions.
By asking questions instead of presenting ideas, you push the work back on the traveler to come up with detailed, thoughtful answers. Instead, make recommendations, explain considerations and alternatives, and then ask for feedback. This is an opportunity to showcase your local expertise.
For example, if someone comes in wanting a trip to the super popular island of Santorini, you may be able to make some other suggestions. “We help many travelers visit Santorini on their Greek trips every year, but you should know that it can get very crowded in the top travel months like July and August. If Santorini is a can’t-miss for you, then I would recommend that we find a local boutique hotel a bit off the main path, and I would recommend a few other ways to explore less-visited areas of the island. If you are open to considering another island experience, my personal favorite is Naxos, which has many of the similar charms as Santorni, but with a fraction of the crowds, a better experience of local life, and at a much better price. With the amount you save over a few nights, we could use that to plan a wine and food tour one of the days. What do you think would be a better fit for you?”
Keep your first suggestions concrete
It may seem a bit counterintuitive (or impossible) to send only one “custom itinerary” when you hardly know anything about a traveler. But travelers don’t have the specialized knowledge it takes to understand the nuanced trade-offs of different trips in your destination—that’s why they need your help.
People turn to travel specialists to avoid digging through endless information online. Too many options may overwhelm travelers — it’s better to send one great itinerary than three partial matches.
Details matter, even in the dreaming phase
From your first interaction, travelers are looking ahead to their trip. Give them peace of mind by supplying a high level of detail in your recommendations and proposed itineraries, even in the early planning stages This includes activity options for each part of the day — morning, afternoon, evening, and night — transport options, and other trust-building details.
When you present your itinerary, make it clear that you’ve taken the traveler’s unique needs and vision into consideration:
- Stay away from phrasing that makes the trip sound like a commodity, such as “Here are common activities people like to do”
- A bit better: “I think you will love these activities I selected.”
- Best: “I know that you are really interested in X, and there’s a great experience in X that would be perfect for your interest in [local cuisine, culture, etc]. It’s better than the standard X experience because…”
Pricing & Quotes
Talk about costs and estimates from the very beginning. Providing no price leaves too much uncertainty. If it’s not a good fit, it’s better for both of you to acknowledge that early on, and go your separate ways.
Here are a few things to keep in mind when addressing costs:
- Don’t just ask, “What’s your budget?” While that may be helpful for you as you approach the planning process, it usually comes off as impersonal. Instead, provide an estimated price range based on what you know, qualify it, and ask follow up questions to narrow your estimate further.
- For example: “A 10-day trip for 2 people this time of year is typically in the range of $x to $y based on some of our preferred 4-star hotels. Of course this depends on what types of activities you want to do as well. Does that in line with what you were expecting for this trip?”
- Since you’re designing a custom trip, an exact price too early can come off a bit premature, a signal that the plans are fairly final and not open for customization.
Be the first, be the best
As a travel specialist, you must ask yourself: Are your services and ideas a commodity? If so, you need to get creative and make your experiences more unique and valuable.
It’s true that travelers can find all of this information on their own if they really want to; either on their own or through another travel agent they may also be “testing out.” Being the first and the best at providing the most relevant insights will establish a trust that serves everyone. You’ll be able to use your expertise to craft an unforgettable trip for your clients, and the traveler will feel confident that his or her experience will be thoughtful, enriching and created just for them. Because it was.