Thursday, April 19, 2012

Tough Pricing Questions, Tougher Answers

(By Richard Turen, Travel Weekly, April 19, 2012)

Is it my imagination, or are the questions getting more difficult? Are consumers peppering us with test questions that require better responses than the industry standbys that served us well, lo these many years?  Of course they are. Our clients spend hours reading online reviews and hearing tales of our demise. But there are some voices out there, newly awakened, who still think we have value. They're suggesting that consumers take us for a test ride before making any commitment.  Here are a few consumer questions travel sellers have to deal with every day, plus snippets of the responses they might hear from better agents I've interviewed over the years.

Some of these responses are tough, almost guerrilla marketing in nature. I don't agree with all of these approaches; some of them are based on half-truths. But they're examples of how some of the most successful agents handle these tough questions. I do believe we've been fighting well-armed price predators with feathers. If you believe it's time to lock and load, that you're at war with commodity travel marketers, consider what follows a blueprint for battle:

Why should I use your services when I can book directly?

You're going to be charged for my services whether you use them or not. My fee is built into the cost of your travel product. If you book direct, the supplier simply pockets the commission, and you get nothing in return.

If you use my services, on the other hand, you have an advocate. You represent one booking to a supplier; I represent dozens, and my consortium represents many more. We have volume clout. You have none.

I am a caring consultant who will be with you every step of the way, beginning with the special documentation I'll send you. Book with Henry Headset and you're just computer data.

It sounds like I get no price benefits with you vs. booking direct. Why is that?

Suppliers set the value on the products they sell. They don't appreciate it when a seller demeans their product by selling it for less. So, yes, we will both have the same prices. But our agency has negotiated exclusive benefits for our clients, so our package will make you feel good about your purchase. It's always going to be in your financial interest to use our services.

Why should I book now? What happens if the price goes down later?

There are three key reasons to book now. First, early bookings guarantee a space on the tour date or in the cruise cabin category you want, with the best possible placement. There are preferred cabin locations in virtually every cruise category, and it is in your interest to reserve your space now.

The second reason has to do with marketing. Tour operators and cruise lines are reluctant to give those who book last better pricing than those who were willing to commit early. They hate having to go back to those already committed to paying one price to tell them they can now pay less. So the odds are that the earlier you book, the better the pricing.

An even better reason is that, sure, budget travel suppliers are constantly changing their prices. But we don't sell them. We look for price integrity before we will agree to represent a travel product. Thus, the tour operators and cruise lines allow us to automatically qualify you for any new marketing discounts. We guarantee price protection, so you have no worries.

After I called you, I called a discount travel agency and found that their price for exactly the same cruise was $450 per person less than your quote. $900 is a big difference. Will you match it?

We appreciate the opportunity to respond. Our relationship with [the supplier] is extremely close, and we can match the offer. However, we'll need a copy of the cruise line guest invoice. No price is legitimate if it doesn't have the imprint of the cruise line on the fare quote or a confirmation number. Once we receive your invoice with the lower price, we'll get back to you within 24 hours with a price match plus a gift for your time and trouble. If it's not a legitimate price, you at least will know that you were dealing with an unethical travel seller.

I'd like to book with you, but [fill in the blank]'s website offers a 5% rebate on any tour. Will you do the same?

You will typically pay more for your vacation in a year than you'll pay your physician, attorney or accountant. In those cases, would you choose the best professional or the one who offered you a rebate?

Tour companies hate rebaters, and you take some real risks by booking with one. Imagine being a guide on the first day of an upscale tour somewhere. As the guests mingle at the introductory cocktail party, one obnoxious couple lets everyone know that their travel agent was willing to work for practically nothing and rebated a good portion of her commission. Now the tour director has an unhappy group, some of whom might have been booked by one of the tour company's top-producing agencies. Tour companies have gone to court to prevent online rebating of their products.

Online rebaters clearly don't feel the tour is worth the brochure price, and thus they are unsupportive of the company. So, should there be problems while you're traveling, they will not be able to wield any influence on your behalf. You'd be working with an industry pariah, which is a real risk. Of course, our agency offers price protection. So just send us the quote and we'll bring it to the attention of the tour operator. If it is a legitimate price, we will match it.

Will I get a better price on my cruise from one of the large online discount sites?

They'd like you to believe you will, but most often you won't. Cruise lines simply do not want you to book their products online, because every online booking is thought to generate between 12 and 15 phone calls to the cruise line's reservations center; online bookers get little or no counseling about things like insurance options, safety issues, shore excursions, onboard dining options and reservations, pre and post arrangements and myriad other reservation issues.

What really gets the cruise lines upset is that they're paying the online travel agencies commissions, even though they're not doing their job. They would much prefer that you book with a professional travel consultant who can answer all your questions, not with some outsourced contractor in Mumbai.

We're price-checking at least four or five agencies and online brokers. We'll book with whichever offers the best quote. Will you send us your best price?

Of course not! We save our best rates for our most loyal clients, which is why we have such a high repeat factor and are successful.  If price is your sole criteria, you'll want to work with a part-timer doing agent work as a second job, with no industry standing. They'll rebate much of the 10% to 15% of the price that is their commission. I'd recommend that you first check them out with the Better Business Bureau.

If the very lowest price is not your only criteria, we suggest that you contact the first agent you invited to work on your vacation, because the truth is, all ethical travel agents get exactly the same rates on the tours and cruises they sell. Since the first agent has already spent time researching your request, we urge you to use her.

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