Christine Hogg is the Associate Digital Editor at PAX Global Media. Prior to joining PAX, she obtained her Honours BA in Journalism from the University of Toronto. Upon graduating, she went on to write for several travel publications while travelling the world. Her longest trip was a three-week stint in Europe, and the shortest was a 16-hour adventure in Iceland. Get in touch: email@example.com.
Last Saturday, Flemming Friisdahl, founder and CEO of The Travel Agent Next Door, flew home from India and landed in Vancouver for 4:45 a.m. By 11:30 a.m., he was already back in the office, ready to work.
That morning, he called give or take 70 travel agents, just to check in and make sure things were going okay, as he does for every newcomer to TTAND.
When Flemming Friisdahl started The Travel Agent Next Door four years ago, he certainly didn’t expect to have 30 staff employed, or that by the end of 2018, the company would be on track to finish the year with over $110 million dollars in sales revenue. In fact, the CEO says that back when TTAND was laying its roots, he certainly wouldn’t have expected to welcome the sheer volume of travel agents who have since joined the family.
“We opened our doors four years ago, and to be honest, we didn’t even know if any agents would join us; I mean, we thought they would, but we could never know for sure,” Friisdahl explained. “We didn’t have a line-up out the door, but as the years went by and people started to see that we were going to be around, I like to think that we’re not looked at that way any more, because when you’re new, everybody does that. We did things slow and steady, and now, we have 325 primary agents and another 210 associate agents. It’s never been my intention to make a killing at what we do, but I always want to make sure that my agents make a living at what they do.”
Today marks the fourth anniversary of TTAND, and, in conversation with PAX, Friisdahl tells us that he couldn’t be happier with the way things have turned out.
Keeping agents happy and informed
On average, TTAND sees a travel agent community that’s between the ages of 45 and 55. Most of the individuals coming into the company are going on their second careers, and because of that, it's important for Friisdahl to both understand and meet the needs of these employees.
TTAND has several platforms and technologies in place to make sure that travel agents are able to put their best selling foot forward.
“Every agent has their own URL, or personal website, and there’s nine booking engines on those websites for our agents, which is something that I’m really proud of,” Friisdahl explained. “On there, we have an API, our content feed, from various vendors that we work with who help feed content into our site, so that our agents have thousands and thousands of pages of content to go through. Every week, professional bloggers produce content for our agents, so that they [agents] can access fresh, updated, and educational information, which in turn, means they don’t view stagnant content, which can often happen.”
TTAND is currently on its third version of its agent website, and this time around, it’s entirely mobile-friendly. With a large majority of holiday bookings or research being done by smartphone, Friisdahl recognized the importance of implementing the mobile platform.
“We are the opposite of an OTA, and our customers will do a lot of their own research,” Friisdahl explained. “We get well over 3,500 to 4,000 visitors combined across all of our agent’s websites, but we don’t get a ton of bookings, which is what we would expect. About 35 per cent of our consumers do it [booking] on their mobile, but they research on the website. What’s important is that they can do the research, and then call an agent directly to tell them exactly what they’d like to do. Anybody can book a sun vacation, or an ‘air-only’ or ‘hotel-only vacation, but we tend to see a lot of group bookings, and so in turn, we’ve had to adapt and build systems that are more intuitive for that segment.”
This year, TTAND also launched its very own extranet system, and although it’s only on its first version, there are plans in the works to roll out a second and third version. According to Friisdahl, the new extranet has increased transparency and visibility for travel agents, allowing them to see everything that’s available, from contracts to personal details.
TTAND also has two very distinct programs: the first being the Brand New Agent program, for travel agents that are brand new to the industry (available in Gold, Silver, or Bronze); and the second being the Experienced Agent Program, meant for individuals who have been in the business of selling travel, but are looking to switch to a new agency.
The key to success: getting inside the consumer’s mind
According to Friisdahl, a good travel agent knows that you only want to be selling to your consumer 20 per cent of the time. The other 80 per cent should be spent engaging with that consumer, showing them the range of possibilities available for their vacation style, and educating them at the same time.
For that reason alone, a great deal of the original blog content found on TTAND’s agent websites are consumer-based, whether that’s a destination spotlight on Morocco, or a guide to fly-fishing in Vermont. The whole idea is to inspire consumers while they conduct their travel research, by presenting carefully-crafted resources, without scaring them off with a pushy, commission-hungry sales approach.
The end goal is to keep the consumers engaged, by ensuring that there is always fresh content up on the websites, and a friendly travel professional just a phone call away.
“We actually don’t get a lot of online sales, and that’s never what we wanted, anyways,” Friisdahl emphasized. “What we wanted was a place where the consumer could do their own research, and then the chance to talk to a real human being who would handle the booking.”
Customer first, family second, community always
According to Friisdahl, TTAND thrives as a result of its three pillars of success: the staff that make up TTAND, the ways in which the agents continue to promote the brand, and the loyalty from the suppliers that have been with the company since day one.
Friisdahl asserts that the company’s success truly circles back to the support and loyalty from the travel agent community. But, even though agents are at the top of his mind, Friisdahl is quick to point out that his employees are always treated with the mentality of how any customer should be treated — and for good reason.
“Our agents are always our partners and our business partners first, and that’s because when you’re dealing with your family, you can be much harder or aggressive on them, and you can take much longer to reply to them, but at the end of the day, you’re going to support them,” Friisdahl explained. “I want our agents to know that they’re our main focus regarding what we do in our world.”
The cost of joining TTAND may be small, but the rewards are high. For $69 a month, agents are provided with the tools and resources they need to take their travel business to the next level. From social media training, to electronic marketing distribution, with a staff that’s more than doubled in four years, TTAND now has the ability to offer 24/7 support to its travel agent network, and that’s part of the reason why TTAND has introduced 96 people to the travel industry for the first time since it opened its doors.
“If you had asked me for my predictions four years ago, it would be that we [TTAND] would still be here,” Friisdahl said. “What makes me the happiest is that we really do make a difference for our agents. It’s not that we’ve been successful, but it’s that we have people who come to us and say ‘You made a difference in my life’, and that, to me, is pretty damn cool.”
For more information on TTAND, visit www.thetravelagentnextdoor.ca.