Are You Being Served?

In this year’s Recommend’s Readers’ Choice Awards, you recognized that in selling travel, sometimes it’s the little things that help to close the sale. The speed of a booking engine, for example, can control the pace of your sales—which, for wishy-washy clients, can make or break their decision to upgrade or to travel altogether. Thankfully, this year’s winners in the service categories—best GDS, best website and best incentive program—have taken all the details of the agent’s selling process into consideration.

best supplier website When it comes to the popularity of his company’s website, president and CEO of VAX VacationAccess, Bob LaCroix, jokes that it must be “because agents are extremely bright.” But in all seriousness, he says, the main reason that two out of three agents in North America use VAX’s system is because, “It’s a place for agents to go where most of the large tour operators are already gathered together for them. That makes it much easier for them to find something that fits what their customers are looking for…. It’s easy for them to go from tour operator to tour operator [without] entering a new URL each time or signing into a new system with a different process.” This “one-stop shopping” feature is the main reason agents keep coming back time and time again, he explains.

But it’s not just breadth of product. On the technology side, LaCroix says that the VAX booking engine is already largely considered to be the best-looking engine. Plus, “the way that you interact with the system to find what you’re looking for is a very good experience with the agents. It’s a very stable, reliable, relatively quick system.” Features like dynamic packaging, in which many tour packages come pre-assembled, give agents a starting point for finding vacations that meet their clients’ needs. “You just say what you’re looking for, and the system pulls together options based on your criteria,” he explains. “Other systems emulate that, but we were the first, and we’re still the best.”

best gds system The importance of quality service for agents and clients alike isn’t lost on Sabre either, says its v.p. of travel agency marketing, Brian Houser, CTC. That’s why the GDS offers tools like Virtually There, in which, “Anytime a traveler books a Sabre vacation through a travel agent, they can access all their travel information on a website that’s accessible on mobile devices. It’s all their travel details, destination information, maps, driving directions, anything that creates a better experience on their trip. They can also register for alerts if their flight is cancelled, delayed, or if there’s a gate change.” This has a big impact on the client, but the effects ripple out to the agent as well. “Even the smallest leisure agency can provide this service, and it makes them look big,” Houser points out.

This year’s award—Sabre’s seventh consecutive win in Recommend’s Readers’ Choice Awards in the GDS category—is more than just recognition of a job well done, Houser says. “It’s a vote of confidence from our customers about our ongoing commitment to invest in the solutions and services that our customers need.” To that end, Sabre’s working on Agentstream, a social media network similar to Facebook or Twitter—but for travel agents only. “It’s a way for our customers to tap into the power of the community, to stay on top of the latest trends, to become an expert in a destination or to reach out to someone in the community that is an expert.”

best travel agent incentive program According to Recommend readers, when it comes to rewarding agents, nobody does it better than Apple Vacations. The tour operator won Recommend’s Readers’ Choice Award for best incentive program this year. So what’s the secret to its success?

“One reason is the consistency of the program,” explains John Tarkowski, v.p. of sales and development. “Our program has been running for 11 years now, and I think over time the consistency and quality of the product that you can get in our program, as well as the travel opportunities, are great.” But the main reason, he says, is that the program simply gives more back to agents than anyone else. With Apple’s program, agents earn not only monetary commissions, but also Apple Royalties Points—a value of between .5 to 1 percent in extra commission. “The beauty of it is if you’re looking for a vacation and you want to get away, you can use your points. You can reward yourself for a hard month’s work by using your points and buying a flat-screen TV. You can use the points if you need Christmas gifts, or to purchase excursion drink coupons or nonstop transfers for VIP clients. It’s a really flexible program.”

What’s more, the points go directly to the agent, not through their agency, meaning that agents can switch agencies and the points go with them. That’s a good thing, Tarkowski says, because many agents will do just about anything to hold onto those points. “Many agents may not choose to work at an agency that doesn’t allow agents to accrue their own points,” he explains.