I don’t watch commercial television that often, but the other night after a long day I popped my feet up and channel surfed for a bit. In between segments of some show I was kind-of watching while simultaneously trawling my news feed, I happened to see the delightful ad in which you mocked bricks and mortar travel agents to push your online booking platform.
After an initial burst of outrage and a bit of looking online, it seems you released this ad a couple of months ago, and it completely slipped under my radar. It also seems despite the industry and customer backlash, you have ploughed forth with what is essentially a smear campaign.
As someone who works in marketing for a bricks and mortar travel agency, and also as a junior travel consultant, I thought your ad was both a cheap dig and factually incorrect. So, I’m here to help set the record straight.
Firstly, travel websites such as yourselves use the same Global Distribution Systems used by bricks and mortar travel agents. For those of you playing at home, this means that the flights shown on the Webjet site are the same flights that a real travel agent sees when searching for flight availability, except as travel agents, we translate the native code without the attractive end-user interface.
So, while the waters could be a little murky, one could, possibly, argue that Webjet is in breach of advertising standards by implying that travel agents have less access to availability than Webjet because that is not the case. We have just as much flight visibility as our online counterparts.
The major difference is that as travel experts and booking agents, it is part of our role to know how to filter the hundreds of results in order to present the best options for our client based on our client’s preferred purchasing behaviour which may be driven by price, the least amount of flying or connection time, baggage limits and change flexibility. We collate the most logical results using our experience and nous instead of an algorithm.
So, when we present four….er, maybe…five results to our client we are confident that those four or five results are the best options out of all the results, based on our client’s specified criteria. If our client does not see one that meets their fancy, we actively search for more suitable alternatives.
We build long-lasting personal relationships with our clients and love getting to know them, their preferences and their needs. By doing so, we become more than just their travel agent. We become their travel advocate, an integral part of their traveling life as an invaluable go-to resource of travel information, recommendations and expertise, as well as a safety net for when things go awry.
We are always happy to do all the research for a trip on our client’s behalf. We find this reduces decision fatigue and ensures that our clients are not only going to get the best value for money, but they are also going to be looked after from the moment they call to make their first enquiry to when they are safely back at home and dreaming about their next trip.
Of course, there are always clients who have already done their research online and know exactly what they want. It’s a little bit like when you clean the house right before your cleaner comes – it’s not necessary, but it certainly makes our job easier. These clients are normally searching for the best deal on a specific itinerary, at which point we are throwing our hat into the ring. The point is, we are there for all our clients, regardless of how much work is involved.
Secondly, you portrayed bricks and mortar travel agents as seemingly unhelpful and lacking in knowledge, when nothing could be further from the truth.
Take into consideration the amount of education that it takes to become employable as a travel agent. If you were lucky enough to backpack around the world in your early 20s and have visited a minimum of 12 countries on at least three continents, you might be lucky enough to be employed on travel experience alone. Otherwise, you may be looking at up to twelve months of intense study to ensure that you know your Honduras from your Oslo.
Aside from geography and sightseeing, agent training will also encompass how to use multiple systems including reservation, wholesale and mid to back office support systems. You will learn about sales, customer service, fares and ticketing, travel insurance, visa requirements, contract negotiation, public speaking, business development, marketing, brochure production and more.
After study, the hopeful graduate will then be employed as a junior agent, where they will spend the next six to twelve months applying and honing their newfound skills in a live environment, after which, all going according to plan, the junior might drop from their job title.
And the education doesn’t stop once the training is over.
As a relative newcomer to the industry, I can attest to the fact that it takes a lot of self-drive if you want to be an okay agent and an almost inhuman amount if you want to be excellent. It involves enormous sacrifices to your personal time and social life. The travel industry is always evolving. So, to be successful we are constantly educating ourselves, which means that we attend functions, conferences, famils (educational trips) and workshops – mostly outside of office hours – at which we are surrounded by ‘the competition’.
Having a healthy respect for your peers in an essential skill when you are a travel agent. Actually, I think it is true of any industry. We may be competing for business, but we are all working towards the same goal – to give our clients the best experience we can.
I am proud to count people from other travel agencies as friends, and while we obviously avoid discussing clients or work related information, we will often share general information with each other which can be used to enhance the traveller experience.
We all have our own way of doing this. For some agents and their agencies, it is being able to offer the lowest price, for others it is about the best inclusions or those little ‘extras’. For some, it is about promoting the ease of booking online and for others, it is all about personal service. Or it could be any and all combinations thereof.
Since we are no longer in primary school and are considered to be professionals, slagging each other off is generally frowned upon. Do we perhaps make private remarks to potential clients about how we believe we can outperform our competitors? Of course.
Do we publicly knock each other in our advertising? Of course not. We don’t need to. We are able to let our skills, knowledge, experience, reliability and our unique additional values, such as the personalisation of our services, speak for themselves.
No matter how big a company is online, every company is ultimately successful not because of its technology, but because of its people and the culture it creates. So, if you are a company reduced to knocking people down in order to build yourself up, it speaks volumes of the core values of the company and the culture under which it operates.
At the end of the day, a client is going to choose the value proposition that appeals the most to them, and that can change depending on their needs at the time. As travel agents, the best thing we can do is promote what makes us unique and allow that stand on its merit.
I believe that there is a place in the market for online travel agencies like yourself to flourish. I also believe that you can do so without being disparaging of your real-life counterparts. We appeal to totally different client profiles. Ours (yours and mine) is an industry built on relationships and in travel, every relationship has value.
With your commercial, not only did you make a mockery of an entire sector of the travel industry, you callously insulted thousands of individual people who work incredibly hard.
These are people, not websites. These are agents who work from home because they want careers as well as children. Agents who will gladly be woken up at 2 am to save a stranded traveller. Corporate travel agents who are multi-tasking geniuses and who not only have have an indepth understanding of multiple company policies but also the quirks of individual travellers. Tireless leisure consultants who are under enormous pressure to close every sale, who do hours of work and will sometimes miss out because of a $5 saving elsewhere.
These are passionate people – not faceless online corporations – who deserve better than the blatantly false and downright insulting misrepresentation received in your latest commercial. It wasn’t funny, nor was it a commonly perceived stereotype.
I could outline at least a dozen ways in which you could have marketed your points of difference without degrading your industry peers in the process, but that would be an article in itself, not to mention a huge conflict of interest. So I’m not going to do that.
Instead, I’m going to speak directly to your potential clients. I am going to urge them to support their bricks and mortar travel agents rather than to use Webjet. Support us, and we will support you. A real travel agent is more than a service provider. With the right agent, you have a friend for life who will be there for the whole journey. They will love to hear your stories about the good trips and will support you during the rare times things don’t go according to plan.
Loyalty is a fickle thing; it takes a long time to nurture but only a moment to destroy. I believe in the long-term value of loyalty. Loyalty to the industry I represent, loyalty to my employer, loyalty to my clients but, perhaps the most important of them all, loyalty to myself and my own professional ethics.
Webjet, you have represented your core values within your advertising and showed all of us what you really think of your face-to-face counterparts. This reality check will perhaps help inform peoples’ purchasing decisions. More than that, though, you have inadvertently issued a call to action to every bricks and mortar travel agent in Australia.
You have reminded us not to become complacent to our online competitors and to redouble our efforts to ensure our clients are more appreciated than ever, and to keep our professional ethics and values in the forefront of everything we do.
For that, Webjet, I thank you.