20 MAR 2018: It’s been four years this week that Flemming Friisdahl launched The Travel Agent Next Door. So, we started with an obvious question, “Has it gone as you thought it would?” There was a moment of hesitation, then a big laugh, “No. We’re still in business!” Friisdahl was joking of course, in fact it's gone as well or better, in the sense that the number of agents they have is pretty much in line with what he expected when he did the original four year budget.  

What was a surprise, said Friisdahl, was the number of staff needed, “we ended up having to hire a lot more staff than we expected, but it was because we wanted to reinvest back in with the agents. That was super important to me.”

The Travel Agent Next Door (TTAND) currently has three hundred and twenty primary agents, and a hundred and ten associate agents. The difference between the two being that, “a primary agent would have more experience. They would more than likely be doing it more full time. Whereas an associate agent would work together with a primary agent.”

And supporting those agents are about thirty staff.

“It's a nice ratio, it's one of the best in Canada,” said Friisdahl, “but it's not cheap. You know, our company was built on a foundation of support and you can't do that with five or six or ten staff.”

About fifty-four percent of TTAND agents are based in Ontario, approximately twenty percent based in Alberta, and then the rest are divided between B.C., the prairies and Atlantic Canada.

We asked Friisdahl what he thought of a recent Expedia survey that people spend more and stay longer if they book through an OTA. Did that make sense to him?

Yes, he said it could make sense and it could be true, but he qualified, “it's when you say "spend more." OTAs are generally for hotel, car and air only tickets. So, if someone's going for a long stay to Florida, while they would be staying longer, but they may have done it at either a rental, an Airbnb, or some sort of a condominium, so it could be longer - but "spend more" is relative to what their "spend" was before with Expedia.

“But traditionally, if you were to ask me, Expedia is a hotel, air, and car company, with probably ninety percent, ninety-five percent of their sales being that way. For traditional store-front locations, we still do a significant amount of air, and a significant amount of car and hotel, but that would only represent, give or take, around twenty-five percent of our business. The other seventy-five percent is selling cruises, and selling coach tours, river cruises and holiday packages.”

“So, the big difference with OTAs is that if you were to look at what they sell, you would probably find that it's the three components: air, hotel and car, would make up ninety percent of their sales, because even when I was doing my old job at Thomas Cook, OTAs, like Expedia, did not sell a lot of ITCs.

“So, I would say that the right and the valid news is that they are right that more people are booking, but whether it's an OTA or a travel agency - they're booking more.

“Our business shows that we're up almost a hundred percent last year and so far this year, we're up to thirty-seven percent on last year.”

“You were up a hundred percent last year?” we asked, just to make sure that we had that right.

“We went from forty million to eighty million in sales,” confirmed Friisdahl.


On the subject of TTAND agents, Friisdahl said one thing TTAND has been able to do is, “bring in over a hundred people into the travel industry - or back into the industry - as travel professionals. That’s something I'm very proud of.

“And the second thing is, we have also seen a significant amount of storefront locations - the smaller, one to two million dollar locations - joining us because they just don't want all the hassles that go along with running a business. They want all the joy of being a travel professional while still owning their own business.”

Friisdahl admits that while he expected some agencies to join TTAND, he did not at all foresee it to the extent that it is happening now.

The small agencies are based mainly in urban centers, and he is proud of TTAND’s “ability to do something very unique - to come in and help keep local agencies in small communities where the big box stores wouldn't go, or big box retailers of travel wouldn't go.

“We can help the small retailers that are in mid-size locations or mid-size markets remain in business because when they join The Travel Agent Next Door, more than likely they actually will retain more of the commission, because we have higher commissions then then most one to two million dollar agencies who are not getting the premium commission levels that we are.

“And the other thing is, if you're a one to two million dollar agency, you're a big fish in my pond. If you're a one to two million dollar agency with anything from say Transat or TravelSavers, that's not a big agency for them.”

TTAND’s travel agents are people who have looked at a second career and have gone through the new agent programme. They are recruited through the traditional word of mouth.

TTAND has both new agents and experienced agents, “they're two very different things to us.”

Brand new people to the industry, are often recruited through websites and webinars. And every new agent that looking to join, has a conversation with Rhonda Stanley, vice president, talent development who talks to them for about an hour, hour and a half about what the programme is all about and what TTAND is about and what it does.

Stanley helps filter out the people that she doesn’t believe will be a good fit for what TTAND is doing as a company.

“We're not trying to get the most agents,” said Friisdahl. “So, she can and will, say to someone, ‘We don't think that we're the right company for you,’ because, we're trying to make sure that everybody that works at the Travel Agent Next Door is a work professional.”

For most of the people joining this would be a second career, and most of them would be aged forty and up.

“I think we all get caught up in our work.” Said Friisdahl, “And one thing that I recognize about travel agents is that they deal with three things that are the most important to people. No other industry, when you think of it, deals with these three things.

“They deal with their money, and it's often a few thousand dollars, three, four, five thousand dollars and more. So, it's significant. That's number one, number two is that they deal with their vacation time, and most people only have between two to three weeks of vacation, and agents deal with that. They need to make sure that the clients enjoy that vacation. And they deal with family. Often people will be travelling with family, friends, with loved ones, so they need to make sure that it's a good fit for where they go, or everyone is going to be fighting like cats and dogs. So, travel agents have a really big responsibility, and it's something they should be very proud of.”

Money, vacation time, and family - along with dreams and high expectations.

“That's right. And so, what we want to do is make sure that when someone books travel, they are dealing with a travel professional, and not just someone who can sell 'em a ticket.”

Experience helps of course, and approximately twenty-five percent of TTAND’s primary agents have been agents for over thirty years.

Approximately another forty-seven percent have been agents between ten and thirty years, meaning the majority of agents employed by TTAND have been doing this for over ten to fifteen years.

“I think the biggest thing is our approach of ‘less suppliers is more’. It's a very different approach, so unlike many companies, we only work with about thirty to thirty-five suppliers as our preferred and approved. And this is important - our agents sell up to five hundred and fifty different suppliers, so an agent can sell anybody they want. But our ‘preferred and approved’ represent close to seventy-eight percent of all of the commission that we earn. Which just means that the agents are really focused because they make so much more money. And if the agents make more money, it's a win for everybody.

“Not only do we employ thirty people, we have made a positive impact on over three hundred peoples' lives – if you could read the emails we get - and that's something I'm proud of. “Not only do we employ thirty people, we have made a positive impact on over three hundred peoples' lives – if you could read the emails we get - and that's something I'm proud of. We're not going out trying to steal from other agencies we’ve just gone out and said "here's what we do.

“And if you're an agency under the two million mark, and you're looking to have a better work-life balance, we'd love to talk to you. Call us. That's really it.”

So agencies, agents if you’re looking for a positive change - talk to Flemming Friisdahl - he has something to say that you might find interesting. 

 

 

 

 

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