Good advice, bad advice
Given the amount of mischief and silliness that can occur in the name of consumer pro- tection, we were of two minds last spring when the Transportation Department (DOT) created an Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protection. On the one hand, we thought, it would be a good thing if the DOT got some additional perspectives on whether and how to enhance its growing body of consumer pro- tection regulations. On the other hand, we did not relish the prospect of the DOT falling sway to the idea that more regulations
equals better regulation.
We hoped the advisory committee would show a little
restraint, and with the publication of the committee’s report to the DOT last week, we got our wish. It showed a
little restraint — but not quite enough.
On a central question of whether airlines should make
all their ancillary services available in GDSs, the commit-
tee indicated that this would be a desirable end result,
Instead, the committee said the DOT should ensure
transparency, and it encouraged “all participants in the
industry — airlines, distribution systems and agents —
to continue innovating with respect to transparency and
distribution of optional products and services.”
We were encouraged that the committee was realistic
enough to recognize that the DOT cannot eliminate all
friction and uncertainty for consumers, as it noted that
“Air travel today provides a wide variety of business
models, network choices and optional services. But with
choice comes complexity for consumers.”
Unfortunately, the committee seemed to switch gears
on the very next page when it recommended that the
DOT require travel agents “to disclose the fact that they
do not offer for sale all airlines’ tickets, if that is the case,
and that additional airlines may serve the route being
searched. All ticket agents, including online ticket agents,
should make this disclosure clearly and conspicuously.”
It’s one thing to argue that agents ought to tell clients
if there are particular airlines or other suppliers that the
agent refuses to sell. That idea comes up from time to
time, and while we don’t think it has much merit, we rec-
ognize that one could make a logical argument in favor of
But that’s not what the advisory committee is talking
about. The committee’s stated concern has to do with the
airline’s marketing choices, not the agent’s. In the com-
mittee’s words: “In some instances, it may appear that a
route is not served at all because the airline or airlines
serving that route have chosen not to participate in a
particular distribution system; this can be confusing for
We’ve seen no evidence that this is a problem big
enough to justify government action, but on its face it
seems to us wrong and wrong-headed to saddle agents
with the consequences of an airline’s sales strategy.
If a particular airline chooses not to participate in a
particular distribution channel, it’s incumbent on that
airline to do whatever else it can to reach its market. It is
surely not the government’s job to require agents or other
distributors to explain that airline’s decision.
We don’t believe any merchant in America should have
to post a sign saying, “Acme Products has chosen not to
sell its products in our store. This notice required by law.”
This we don’t need.
Social media 101, for agents
As an early adopter of social network- ing platforms for my travel agency, I felt I knew the potential impact that online communities could have on my business, so I invested the time
required to develop a significant social media
presence. I now have a sizable digital imprint,
and in some circles I am perceived as
and among groups of people. The content, which can be
text, photos, audio or video, is posted to social network
platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Each takes its own
unique form, offers its own way of communicating with
various parts of your business universe and therefore represents potential for interaction between you and friends,
customers and potential prospects.
Whatever the platform, keep it simple. Post photos from
your travels, site inspections and fam trips. Comment
about favorite destinations. Follow with updates that reveal
your personality and business knowledge.
I have learned a lot along the way to building
my social media presence: I came to know the
importance of quality over quantity; I discovered which travel brands I could count on to engage in an online dialog; I learned which agents
and suppliers were willing to jump into an online conversation for the sake of being social.
Where do you fit in?
If you are one of the holdouts who has been
secretly hoping social media would go away but was also
drawn to its possibilities, read on: I will be sharing best
practices with the readers of Travel Weekly to help you discover what the buzz is all about. I have more than 20 years’
experience as a technology trainer, and I have been a travel
agent, so I can help you get a jump-start in ways that are
specifically relevant to your business.
In this day and age, social media must become part of a
travel agent’s marketing plan. Along with direct mail, cold
calls, trade shows, client-appreciation parties and websites,
travel agents need to be ready to integrate social media
into their marketing strategy.
The difference between all those other marketing tools
and social media has to do with the tone and purpose of
the message. Social media are tools to help prospects and
current clients get to know you better and to introduce
you to potential new clients. While traditional marketing
techniques are aggressive calls to action, reserve social media to help strengthen relationships.
One key reason to use social media is that a lot of your
customers already are. Relationships are the cornerstone
of your business, and consumers aren’t afraid of sharing
online, which means you could be losing opportunities to
maintain relationships. Your customers and potential clients are engaging online, and they will continue to engage
that way, with or without you.
You owe it to your business to see what is happening
in social media, and if you can, you need to get in on the
conversations, playing the role of an unbiased third-party
expert, the voice of reason. Although this might not close a
deal, you will establish yourself as an authority about your
travel niche, and that is great public relations.
Travel agents I have met are social
by nature, which is a key ingredient to
developing a social media presence.
Moreover, agents are passionate about
their travel niches, knowledgeable and
ready to answer questions. Social media offers a way to
harness that outgoing enthusiasm and share it online.
In addition, you can use social media tools to track what
people are saying about you and your company, generate
publicity about upcoming events and to promote yourself,
in addition to sharing links to hot deals (although it’s best
to keep the deals-and-discounts aspect to a minimum).
Before you get online
To start things off, I’ve assembled a general
overview for jump-starting your online marketing strategy. In subsequent columns I will
focus on specific platforms and offer suggestions about how to get started as well as shortcuts and tips to turn newbies into power-users.
For now, here are the basic beginning steps:
• Find a flattering headshot of yourself (
preferably smiling), and use it on all your sites as a
sort of avatar, a consistent visual image by which others
will recognize you. This will help with branding and reinforce the impression that you are everywhere.
• For uniform messaging, create a short bio and use it
on all your social networking profiles. Write your bio using links and keywords that best describe your business
for search engine optimization, or SEO, which will help
people find you online.
• Research your competition’s online presence and determine which among them is best employing social media. Which competitor seems to be everywhere, mixing
it up with your target interest groups? You’ll learn a lot
from this exercise.
• Using email or a newsletter, create an informal poll
asking your current customers what social networks
they prefer, then use the results to determine where you
should spend your time online initially.
• Discover what trade media, associations and suppliers are doing online to interact with travel agents and
consumers. Look for clues about how each relates to its
audience and which might be potential strategic partners.
• Begin engaging. Monitor what is happening online
and get comfortable leaving comments.
Now, armed with this intelligence and experience, determine which of the following social media platforms
best suit your business needs:
Major social media services
Facebook.com: This social media giant is a great place
for travel agents to start to build an audience. The platform is based on the concept of interacting with “friends”
lowing. If you have already established a personal Facebook account, consider creating a separate, more public
account that can be viewed by anyone on the service.
Twitter.com: Based on the concept of creating networks
of “followers,” Twitter is not the easiest platform to understand, but with a little insight gleaned from training and
practice, it can quickly become a travel agent’s most efficient tool for creating a network and communicating with
members of that network.
Instagram.com: Do you use a smartphone or tablet?