If you’ve been paying attention to travel trends lately, you’ve probably noticed the rise in travelers—and U.S. residents in particular—opting to go abroad for medical treatment. Though it was once considered risky, the practice of undergoing medical procedures outside of one’s home country has grown into a serious industry in recent years. And as the hot political issue of healthcare highlights the ways in which the U.S. system is lacking, more and more people are considering the possibility of saving money with foreign doctors, while spending their savings on travel in some of the world’s most exotic destinations.
The trick is to turn those people into clients. It’s not as simple as booking a hotel room or a plane ticket, says Saroja Mohanasundaram, CEO of Healthbase, an online reviewer and packager of medical tourism product. But done well, she points out, it can add a whole new dimension to your travel sales.
how to sell The first thing to keep in mind about medical tourism, Mohanasundaram says, is that medical procedures—no matter how expensive or common—are always serious matters, matters that travel agents aren’t trained to handle. Clients looking for travel advice rely on an agent’s expertise and experience booking hotels and dealing with tour companies and airlines. A client booking a trip for medical reasons needs that same kind of advice, but about doctors and hospitals, she says, so when you’re selling medical tourism, you’ll need a partner.
“Our staff go and visit nearby hotels, whether they’re five-star hotels, four-star hotels or three-star hotels,” she explains. “We see everything in various budget ranges. We ensure they’re in safe locations, that they’re convenient to the hospitals. Travel agents handle so many hotels, but they don’t know all the product [when it comes to the medical side].” Plus, she points out, you might see a particular hotel property in a new light when you consider it from a medical point of view. The luxury boutique resort in a gorgeous part of town becomes less appealing when you discover it has no elevator for your client after their knee surgery, or that it’s a good two hours away from the hospital, for example.
The same is true when it comes to booking tours for clients before and after their treatments. “When people go for not very big procedures, usually they stay for an extra week,” Mohanasundaram says. “In that time, we can arrange their trip. For example, in Costa Rica, people usually go to the rainforest.” That’ll work, she stresses, for a patient who just had light dental work, but not necessarily for the client with a hip replacement.
No matter where they stay or what they do, commission opportunities abound. Agents working with Healthbase earn commission on the hotels and airfare they book. If their tour is booked through a company that offers commission, they’ll earn that as well. And because the trip is a collaborative effort between you, your client and Healthbase, it’s what Mohanasundaram calls a very hands-off process. Healthbase handles the doctor and hospital appointments, as well as gathering medical records and providing price estimates for procedures, ensuring you’re not liable for any medical missteps—a major reason many tour operators are treading lightly before they enter this niche market.
getting started Mohanasundaram says travel agents who want to start selling medical tourism should start with a particular niche, whether it’s a type of procedure or a certain destination. “What they can do is try one program. Choose a medical, cosmetic or dental procedure and just try it for six months. Afterwards, they can add other programs. It’s all a question of how much traffic they’re able to bring in. Hip surgery and knee surgery are the most popular procedures on the medical side,” she explains, while, “on the cosmetic side, it’s face lifts, and dental operations, too—implants and crowns.”
When you’ve chose your niche, Mohanasundaram says, agents should call their medical tourism partner to talk about options and gather background info. Then it’s all about marketing. “The main thing is that agents already have access to a large customer base who are ready to travel,” she explains—they just need to know what’s being offered. Mohanasundaram suggests linking to online resources like Healthbase from your travel agency’s website as a subtle way of getting the word out, as well as e-mail marketing.