Insights on Travel from Costa Rica Expeditions’ Founder Michael Kaye and his Expert Friends.

How Travel Businesses “Go the Extra Mile to Become the Chosen One.” Part 1

Meena commented on last weeks post, “I would be interested in knowing how any agency tries to go the extra mile, to become the chosen one.”

Like all business, travel businesses try “to become the chosen one” by providing more perceived value than the alternatives.

In general the things that buyers value in travel are the same as the always have been for any business at any time.

One important factor has recently changed and there has always been one important difference between travel and most other enterprises.

What has changed (and in my view will change more than it already has) is that in travel, as in most other fields, the buyer has an unprecedented amount of alternatives and access to knowledge to make informed choices.

What is somewhat unique to travel is the vast difference between the buyers’ experiences and perception before the trip in the planning stage and during the trip in the experiencing stage.  This is an important and complicated distinction that I’ll get back to at the end of this post.

Of the countless ways that travel businesses go to attract and keep client and guests, I’ll give you just one very recent example involving the two most basic travel products beds and seats on airplanes. 

Last week in Mexico City I had the opportunity to watch the owners of travel agencies with many of the highest net worth clients in the United States supervise and support their people back in the US who were working day and night to do anything they could to help hundreds if not thousands of their clients who were stranded in Europe because of the ash clouds from Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland.

On Friday afternoon I happened to be sitting at lunch with Priscilla Alexander, CEO, of ProTravel, one of the 20 largest agencies in The States.  She was wearing out her Blackberry alternating between helping her people help her clients and cancelling a personal vacation that she had planned in Mexico for after Symposium. I overheard her say to someone, “Tell him I am really sorry to cancel.  I’ve been looking forward to this vacation for months.”

If their was any way to get from Northern Europe to the few open airports in Southern Europe by surface transportation and get a seat on a seat on a flight back to The States from those airports clients of ProTravel and similar companies were going to get home—and if they needed to stay overnight before their flight they were going to get a bed—and they were going to get that bed at a fair price.

Travel agents who provide that level of service have existed for a long time.  What is new is the multiplicity of ways and prices available to travelers who buy on the same day the same seat to travel on the same days.

The next obvious question is do you pay a premium for the ticket from an agency of this caliber. 

It depends on the negotiating leverage that agencies have relative to the airlines at any particular time.  There are times when they can pass on savings. There are times when their margin if any is less than the cost of giving the service in which case they have to pass on their cost to their clients.  Large agencies have more buying power, but that only helps when there is surplus of seats.

Whether paying a premium for this kind of service is worth it completely depends on perceptions, values—and the pocket book of the buyer. For the executive who got back home in time to see her daughter’s star performance in the school play, no doubt it is.

This where the distinction between perceptions pre trip and during trip come into play. When you are making the buying decision, how do you know the chances needing help in a crisis or the how much value top of the line planning and arrangements will add to any particular business trip or vacation.  Obviously you can’t know.  So I suspect that the value involved when buyer decide whether or not to buy premium travel services is something akin to peace of mind.

Several people commented that they were interested in reading more of “Change, Travel, Technology, and Magic.”  I sent them the whole thing.  I will probably post more of it, but if anyone else wants it let me know and I’ll send it to you.

Jessie Drew-Cates commented, “In general can you also give some idea of what you perceive as future travel?”  If anyone out there has a clue I’d sure like to read it.

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4 Comments and 1 Replies

  • @Meena: I like to call what you experienced ‘Intuitive Service’. This is what sets service providers—for travel and in general—apart. Picking up on opportunities to make a difference with details that really matter to a specific guest. I’ve seen many of these examples throughout Mexico and am always impressed. And it’s usually in the most unexpected place and time… I always think to myself ‘that person’s mother brought them up right!’. Forget the fancy hospitality schools, it’s just about paying attention, acting on a situation when it arises or better yet anticipating needs when possible ;) Great post Michael!

    • There is certainly an unprecedented amount of information available to travelers today; the internet, VOIP phones, International 1-800 telephone numbers have closed the information arbitrage gap.

      That being said, there is still no substitute for first hand local knowledge and experience, especially with more “exotic” travel. There is also no substitute for in country relationships: rather than a product, travel comes down to people and those relationships and the special access to people, places, experiences that they provide is invaluable. Beyond the special experiences that relationshipos can afford, they are the actual essence of the experience: our interaction with the hotel staff, drivers, and especially guides, most importantly in non commoditized, “experiential” travel, truly makes the difference.

      The final stretch of that extra mile for the travel company striving to be the chosen one is INTEGRITY. Doing the right thing, chosing long-term relationships over short term gain, taking responsability for mistakes and going over and above expectations to recover from them is what truly wins loyalty with our clients and my own when traveling.

      • At April 27, 2010
        7:37:34 am
        Shannon Borrego said:

        I don’t know about others, but I don’t book my travel with the expectation that something is going to go wrong. Obviously there is no way to predict all the things that could go wrong and I usually trust that my travel company will have the resources locally to deal with an unexpected situation. The quality of the local guides and company reps make a huge difference in my perception of how the unexpected is being handled. Competent and gracious reps find ways to minimize the inconveniences even if they can’t come up with a seat on an overbooked flight and they always remain calm and unflappable. And yes, the more I pay, the more I expect from them in regards to fixing problems abroad.
        One other approach to keeping pre-trip and during-trip perceptions positive is to include an unexpected surprise for the client during the trip. This always make me feel like I’m getting a “freebie” and it makes me feel special. It also helps to counteract any negative experiences I might have had. The surprise could be anything from a special insider’s tour of something not listed on the itinerary, to a private wine and cheese tasting.

        • At April 26, 2010
          2:15:21 pm
          meena said:

          Dera Michael , Thanks for the reply .
          Although this is not about a travel agent , I would like to mention a very pleasant experience I had at a hotel in Costa Rica , in san Jose , as an exmple of the extra mile .
          We had beeen seated in th courtyard of this hotel’s restaurant , when it suddenly became very chilly . Since we were a little unprepared for his we thought of just keeping our jackets on . Suddenly the hostess appeared ,and offered us a pair of soft woolen shawls ! We had a very comfortable dinner and returned them before leaving . It was a small gesture , but gave us such a warm feeling .

          • At April 26, 2010
            3:43:53 pm
            Michael Kaye replied
            to meena:

            Meena, That is a wonderful example. Can you remember what hotel it was? I would love to give them credit.