The most significant challenge for hotel distribution today is finding the right balance between direct channels and OTAs. Surprisingly, the answer to this predicament may lie with a sales agent.
Although OTAs are useful for extra exposure, they can be inconvenient for the supplier. This is for a number of reasons, including the distribution of their marketing efforts; the ungovernable nature of their business models; and their ownership of customer data. Therefore, more companies are focusing on direct channels and building relationships with traditional sales agents to bolster revenue. In this article, we break down the challenges OTAs present, how a sales agent can drive direct bookings, and the qualities of an exceptional salesperson.
Why OTAs present challenges
Although OTAs can be convenient for the customer, they present obstacles to suppliers. These include:
1. They focus marketing efforts on their own brand
OTAs invest a large amount in digital marketing. This creates a ‘billboard effect’ where consumers associate the entire industry with a few hyper-visible brands. Although the majority of travelers will trawl through the enormous list of hotels presented by OTAs, they rarely familiarize themselves with the individual brands. As such, OTA brands become the most recognized trademarks as opposed to hoteliers who sell through them.
2. They can change the rules
As the market expands and transforms, OTAs alter their business model. According to Hotelogix, OTAs were offering large hotel chains lower booking commissions while smaller independent hotels were paying higher rates. The reasoning behind this maneuver was that the larger hotels had more rooms, thus enabling them to pay higher commission to the OTA by volume. This leaves smaller hoteliers at a disadvantage, especially as the more commission the hotel pays, the higher up the OTA ranking the property will appear.
3. Suppliers do not own their customer data
Last year, hotel room aggregator Booking.com stated that they will no longer provide hotels with customer contact information. This information is crucial to smaller businesses as often the best relationships are formed before the guest checks in. For instance, offering directions, a list of services, or special offers in advance of their stay can be central to a positive customer experience. Therefore, losing control of the customer’s data means losing the personalized service that is unique to independent hoteliers.
How sales agents can increase direct bookings
Large hotel brands such as Hilton and Marriott have begun investing in campaigns to recuperate some of the market share from OTAs. These marketing campaigns aim to remind travelers that they can benefit from brand loyalty. As a result, one of the most powerful ways to encourage direct bookings is to launch a loyalty program. By enticing customers on to the hotel’s website with exclusive offers, clients can be drawn away from OTAs and towards a hotel’s direct channels.
However, there is one route to direct bookings that is making a remarkable comeback – travel sales agents. After an extended period where traditional sales agents were losing a large portion of their business to online booking, these services are enjoying a revival. This is largely because many customers are beginning to find the sheer volume of options online overwhelming. Subsequently, they are forgoing the comparative shopping experience and seeking a customized booking experience.
With a traditional travel agent, the hours trawling endless lists on OTAs are eliminated, saving the customer time and energy. Surprisingly, Millennials – who have previous favored OTAs – are increasingly turning to travel agents. In a recent survey, 34% used a travel agent and an additional 39% planning to use one in the future.
By and large, these travelers are looking for memorable experiences. As such, they are increasingly turning to agents who specialize in a specific niche. These agents are considered market experts, with inside information on the best flights, attractions, and accommodation. In fact, 60% of Millennials said they are willing to pay more for expert knowledge and 83% use agents because of this unique offer.
Qualities of an exceptional travel sales agent
As every salesperson knows, the travel industry is a precarious sector; no deals are guaranteed and customer expectations are constantly in flux. However, exceptional salespeople thrive in this climate of uncertainty. Below, we describe the qualities to look for in an excellent travel sales agent. With these qualities in mind, hoteliers can identify profitable and dynamic partners.
Primarily, an exceptional travel sales agent is knowledgeable. They will know their products and packages down to the very last detail. By providing information quickly and seamlessly, these individuals can drive customer satisfaction in a sales environment where people expect instant gratification.
The best salespeople are extremely organized. They will access customer information with ease, identifying their previous purchases, communications history, and if there has ever been any friction. With this attention to detail, these agents are able to handle customer requests efficiently and effectively.
The best salespeople do not only look after existing accounts, they actively seek out new ones. An exceptional travel agent will eagerly seek out new ways to connect with potential clients. Furthermore, they will also be tenacious; they will not allow rejection or objections to stop them from meeting their targets.
People skills are essential to sales, especially in the travel and hospitality industry. This does not mean that sales agents should be superficial; they need to make authentic connections with their clientele. A great salesperson will examine customer preferences and identify the product that will meet these needs. These agents will also understand when to talk and when to listen, allowing the customer to lead the process. This empathetic approach establishes trust, security, and loyalty.
5. Hard working
The best travel agents do not stop after a product is sold; they ensure the customer feels valued throughout the buyer journey. An excellent travel agent will understand they need to act as a single point of contact and be available to handle customer queries or complaints. Moreover, they will ensure that these complaints are dealt with quickly and effectively. In order to do this, the best agents are well-networked within their profession, with positive relationships with suppliers and senior management. With this leverage, they can ensure they can resolve issues with ease.
The best salespeople understand that support and guidance is important, however, they also understand the importance of self-motivation. Exceptional salespeople are competitive by nature, driving sales and meeting targets. However, they will also have a strong sense of personal accountability. Through a sense of responsibility, suppliers and management can feel confident that they are effectively marketing their product.
Finally, a truly brilliant travel agent will understand that time is money. Therefore, they will have excellent time management skills. Good time management is demonstrable of trustworthiness, organization, and a sense of responsibility. This is especially important in the travel industry, where agents frequently have to communicate across different time zones. Through these traits, both customers and managers can feel they are in the safe hands.
Connecting with travel agents
Although OTAs remain important to a hotelier’s exposure, it is certain that more traditional holiday booking journeys are having a renaissance. Travel agents are increasingly partnering with hospitality providers to offer clientele tailor-made packages at special rates. Through this channel, hotels’ are regaining control of their marketing, business models, and customer data. With the right partners, hotels can ensure their product is marketed as effectively as possible. As such, a synthesis of old fashioned customer service and innovative data analysis seems to be the future of hotel distribution strategy.