Tuesday,  March 21, 2023  12:58 am

Machines are no match for human-powered travel, say TL Network execs

Machines are no match for human-powered travel, say TL Network execs
From left; John Lovell, president, Travel Leaders Group; Roger Block, president, TL Network; Christine James, VP Canada, TL Network; Stephen McGillivray, CMO; Cory Voss, VP, product & solutions. (Pax Global Media)
Michael Pihach

Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and DailyXtra.ca. Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.

The leadership team at Travel Leaders Network will be among the first to extol the benefits of technology.

The travel agency network, riding a wave growth, relies on modern-day tools to ensure its membership is accessing the best value for clients while, at the same time, maximizing their earning potential.

Agents, for example, can access marketing content that consumers tend to gobble up – social media posts, like Instagram “Reels” or TikTok videos, that capture authentic moments in time, like the allure of new resort or excitement of a cruise ship inaugural. 

There’s also TL Network’s lead generation tool, Agent Profiler – an online directory that lets agents build a profile, highlight their expertise, promote itineraries and share customer reviews.

Like a dating site, the platform matches travel-curious consumers with travel agents – often leading to new business relationships and profitable outcomes (last year alone, the directory resulted in more than 12,750 customer leads).

And there are high-tech booking engines that help simplify business. The program Cruise Complete (which will soon replace TL Network’s CruisePRO) displays live inventory and pricing. In Canadian dollars, no less.

Yup. Technology, if used correctly, can do travel agents and agencies a lot of favours.

But no machine, artificial intelligence or booking tool can replace the power of human connections, say the execs at TL Network, crediting “human-powered” travel for driving company success.

Coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, the need and desire for personalized service has never been greater, they say.

“There’s no better time to be a travel advisor in this industry,” John Lovell, president of Travel Leaders Group, told top travel trade media on Wednesday (Feb. 1) at a press conference held at the Hyatt Regency hotel in downtown Toronto.

Lovell, appearing alongside other members of the Travel Leaders team – including Christine James, TL Network’s vice-president for Canada – said agents proved their worth during COVID when clients needed them most.

The consortium will even sometimes push the tagline to “go human” because, after all, personal knowledge and support is something a faceless algorithm can’t provide.

This was proven in a survey TL Network conducted with OnePoll last fall in which 70 per cent of respondents said they trust people over tech. 

Additionally, 44 per cent prefer a real person to help them while 74 per cent said that, over the last decade, society has become too reliant on computers, bots and algorithms. 

Leisure travel is thriving

It’s a good time to advise because revenge travel – the idea that consumers are taking “revenge” on their inability to travel during the pandemic and spending more on bigger, longer, more lavish trips – is still a real phenomenon, Lovell said.

River cruise sales, for one, are nearly back to pre-pandemic levels, he said.

He cited a 2022 survey by TravelStyle, which says that 16 million North Americans want to go on a river cruise again and 37 million want to take a river cruise for the first time.

READ MORE: TL Network hosts agents in T.O.; James cites “phenomenal” growth amid strong sales

It’s as if Canadian travellers feel free again, Lovell explained, and they’re turning to travel pros for validation and guidance.

Ocean cruising is also bouncing back as new ships debut. 

From left (of Travel Leaders Group): John Lovell, president; Stephen McGillivray, chief marketing officer; Cory Voss, VP, product & solutions. (Pax Global Media)

Lovell sees a renewed focus on luxury as travellers seek out authentic experiences – on expedition voyages, in particular, which are showing “extremely high” demand.

And Europe is back as travellers flock to places like Italy, the United Kingdom, Spain and Portugal amid a weak euro, he said.

Leisure travel, overall, is thriving – and concerns about the economy or stock market aren’t slowing the trend, Lovell said.

The key word, he said, is “confidence” – consumers are confident in their finances in being able to travel.

And suppliers are confident in their ability to fill seats, ships and resorts.

“We’re about to be much bigger”

With more than 650 member agencies, TL Network Canada is “definitely the largest” travel agency organization in the country, said Christine James.

“And we’re about to be much bigger,” said James, hinting that a new addition to the network could be announced within the next month.

The VP said that 49 new members joined TL Network Canada in 2022 and generated $116 million in sales. Year to date, another three members have joined, which resulted in $1 million in sales.

Meanwhile, the organization’s member retention rate sits at an impressive 98 per cent.

Christine James, vice-president, Canada, TL Network. (Pax Global Media)

Why do agencies join?

“We have a very strong support services department to help advisors operate their businesses effectively,” said Roger Block, president of the Travel Leaders Network.

READ MORE: TL Network Canada wraps up fall regionals with renewed energy & optimism

The company, in total, has more than 5,000 member agencies, which accounts for more than 97,000 professionals  – “the highest it’s ever been,” said Block.

The company is also tackling the industry’s staffing crisis with new programs that help agencies recruit staff who have never worked in the industry before.

And, already, 1,300 advisors have graduated from the program, Block said.

“Mutual success” with TTAND

The Travel Agent Next Door (TTAND), which joined TL Network in 2021, has led to “mutual success” for both parties, James said in a release earlier this week. 

Flemming Friisdahl, founder and CEO of TTAND, noted key areas that have impressed him so far since joining the network.

“The first is their senior team’s willingness to listen to what we need and then action it quickly. This includes making sure the magazines are compliant with TICO requirements for us to send out to our clients,” Friisdahl stated.

Additionally, working with the team to make sure cruise booking tools were developed was a “big priority for TTAND.”

Flemming Friisdahl, founder and CEO of TTAND. (Pax Global Media/file photo)

TL Network has given agents the support they need, from road shows to “generalized reinforcement,” Friisdahl said.

“I believe this partnership will only continue to grow stronger and TL Network will continue to increase their presence in Canada.”  

Friisdahl also praised Agent Profiler because “we have several of our agents that are now receiving leads, seeing well over 20 bookings coming from these leads…and that is only with approximately 15+ agent partners signed up so far over a short period of time.”

Agent Profiler & “Super Agents”  

Agent Profiler – which currently showcases some 830 Canadian agents – now allows members to build detailed profiles with custom itineraries, which “adds validation to the advisors’ expertise,” said Stephen McGillivray, chief marketing officer at Travel Leaders Group.

Members who complete their profile with detailed content tend to do well on Agent Profiler, the team said, and some 350 agents quickly qualified as a “Super Agent” within the first six months of the program’s launch back in spring 2022. 

Earning a “Super” badge is about “encouraging advisors to fully embrace Agent Profiler,” said Cory Voss, vice-president of product and solutions at Travel Leaders Group. “And when they do, they're rewarded by being elevated in search results on CanadianTravelAgents.ca.”

Members seem to be getting some good leads, too.

James shared an anecdote about an advisor who was contacted by a consumer, via Agent Profiler, to book a five-star vacation to Jade Mountain Resort in Saint Lucia – and fly there on business class.

In another instance, one agent was sourced to book two world cruises, she said.

In addition to generating leads, TL Network is set to launch a new leisure online booking tool that’s geared to independent agents and non-GDS agents.

According to Voss, it’s “truly a feature-rich tool that will be a difference maker for a lot of agencies.”

Get social

Beyond tech, a commitment to education and networking will be key components of TL Network’s strategy in the months ahead.

Social media, for one, remains a major focus and agents, while many are still navigating the uncharted waters of TikTok, Instastories and Reels, are keen to learn the ropes.

TL Network’s webinars about social media routinely see the highest attendance, said McGillivray, saying that travel retailers run the risk of being “left behind” if they ignore today’s social media trends.

TL Network's well-attended trade show in Toronto last fall. (Supplied)

To assist, TL Network has a Social Share & Scheduler that allows advisors to share promotions, pre-written blogs, ready-to-go reels, and destination content on their social channels, with their Agent Profiler page front and centre.

This tool, said McGillivray, has seen a 62 per cent increase in advisor use since 2022, which means agents are digging it. 

Meanwhile, in-person gathering are ramping up again as TL Network Canada, following the success of its 2022 Fall Regionals, will host “Peak” events in Edmonton (Oct. 17), Vancouver (Oct. 19) and Toronto (Oct. 25).

Regional mixers are also currently taking place in select cities and will continue through June.

TL Network’s EDGE conference, taking place May 8-11 in Nashville, TN, will also see a strong Canadian contingent as more than 100 TL Network Canada agencies are registered to attend (with many others on a waiting list).

Clearly travel agents are craving human interaction just as much as consumers. 

Go human, or go home. 

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