11 OCT 2016:  We recently caught up with The Travel Agent Next Door’s Flemming Friisdahl, who was, as always, enthusiastic! hyped! pumped!  - fill in whatever animated adjective you prefer – about his company, travel agents and the future of the industry in general and eager to tell how he and his team can help move forward.

We met at the TTAND offices in Toronto, and were barely seated before Friisdahl outlined his approach, “When you watch something like FIFA or the Olympics or the Grand Prix – who do you see advertising – you see MacDonalds, you see Coca Cola, global corporations?   We all know who they are.  But if companies that size know they need to stay in sight and stay in mind – then how can a travel agent who works from home not remember that they need to stay in sight or else stay out of mind?

“For us it’s probably the number one thing - so when we launched our product we included all the marketing that we wanted an agent to do within the programme - all the marketing they need.  We included a social media programme.  We all know agents are wonderful at selling travel, but just because you’re good at selling travel doesn’t mean you are good at social media. It doesn’t mean you are good at newsletters.

“All an agent has to do when they work with us is they have to be able to put client information - or potential client information into the marketing system.  Once it’s in our CRM we do it all.”

 “ We have the same skin in the game that an agent does (it’s an analogy he uses frequently)  – and I don’t think every host agency does.”

‘Having the same skin in the game’ gives both agent and company the same motivation to succeed he says.

TTAND does not charge  extra for the marketing or for social media programme, nor do they  have additional charges for the printed material they send out identified with the individual agent’s name and sent via Canada Post.

They also have a website and are just launching a brand new website “with eight booking engines” that’s completely mobile.

“We don’t charge our agents for any of these things,” says Friisdahl,

“We also have electronic email campaign – so we include all media except for radio, TV and newspaper – we cant afford them - they’re just too expensive.  But all the other media we include where most agencies don’t, or they charge extra.”

“We don’t charge extra because I believe we have the same skin in the game and - we have the same philosophy with our suppliers.”

Friisdahl says that when he was Senior VP at Thomas Cook, “it was very frustrating for me as a supplier to have retailers come in and say ‘give me $1,000 dollars and I’ll get you $10,000 in sales.’

“$1,000  for $10000 – okay that’s good math. So I’d say to them, ‘okay here’s what – I’ll give you $1,500 in marketing once you hit $10,000 in sales.’ And the retailer would always say No, no, I need the money. I have to get the money first – and I’d say ‘there’s no skin in the game.’ I’m paying the money but there’s no guarantee in return.”

So now, says Friisdahl, what he does with his suppliers is to tell them what TTAND can achieve for them,  “here’s what we  can achieve and when we achieve it – you pay this.  If we don’t achieve it you don’t pay it.

“It’s a very simple philosophy – we both have skin in the game.”

When it comes to agents says Friisdahl, the company invests a large amount of money in training – they have two full time dedicated trainers – because, “if we do not grow their sales we are not going to win.”

Agents are also taught money management, time management and goal setting and these are recorded and can be accessed by agents at their convenience.

“So, I believe again that we have the same skin in the game.  The travel agents are our partners - and this is important – partners/customers.  So, the travel agent is in charge here – not us.

“Our job is to help them succeed – if they succeed – we succeed – if they succeed the supplier succeeds and that’s when we all win.”

According to Friisdahl 73 percent or 74 percent of all the commission TTAND earns is earned on just approximately 31 preferred and approved suppliers.   Those suppliers include everything from railways, airlines, river cruises and coach tours  to FIT and  ITC packages.

“We have two classes – preferred and approved - and our agents on preferred get 100 percent of the commission depending on the level they’re at – they get a minimum of 85 percent to 100 percent.” Says Friisdahl.

“No one else does that in the industry. I believe we have been able to do something in Canada that no one else has been able to do yet – we’ve really been able to direct business – so 42 percent of our business goes to just 15 suppliers – this year we should end our business at about $33 or $34 million.”

TTAND has two kinds of agents – 225 primary agents who can call in for support and whose marketing is all done based on their branding “it’s all about them” says Friisdahl.

Then there are about 13 or 14 storefronts throughout Canada, some are branded TTAND,  some are branded with their own branding.

“That’s the whole secret – we’re not here about growing the travel agent next door – we’re here about growing that agent and their agency.” He says.

“The approach is different. No other host agency that I know of – as an all time ongoing philosophy sell preferred because they’re the only ones that matter – and we’re going to compensate the agents for selling the preferred.  We also have a profit sharing programme that will kick in next year.

“Profit sharing is extremely important to me to show the agents that we are committed.”

This year 2016, will be a break even year for The Travel Agent Next Door.  Last year they lost money – next year they expect to turn a profit.

“We don’t need to hire a ton more people – we’ve got the highest ratio of staff to agents in Canada– 19 full time staff – two based in YVR (technically Friisdahl is based in YVR, though he’s a pretty much a commuter on the YVR/YYZ route.)

“The question is are we in it for the long term, or are we in it just to make money – and  I’ve spent my whole life serving travel agents and working with travel agents.  It’s a job I enjoy doing.

“We could have made money the second year – this year - no question.  We decided instead to invest money by hiring more staff so that we could continue give good service to our agents – versus worrying about making money – it is something we should be worrying about as an organization – but we put it back in.  Many companies don’t – they just try to take it out.”

“So, we’re 19 staff servicing 225 agents. There are a total of 330 agents but 105 are associates working in storefronts and they don’t call us, they call their branch for support.”

Friisdahl wants to get the message to small agencies.  Those with sales of approximately $2.5 million or smaller.

“…especially if you are an Ontario or BC agency, where there’s a lot more regulation on you, and but you still want to run your own business – you still want to have your own brand – you want to have the ability to sell the suppliers you want to sell – which is so important – but you want someone to do the other not-so-much-fun stuff.

“If you don’t want to be doing the TICO reporting, doing your engagement review, worrying about websites, worrying about booking engines on your website, worrying about phone systems, worrying about accounting systems, these are all things agencies have to do.

“Then they worry about electronic marketing.  Worry about social media.  If they want to get away from all of that – and just sit back – because most agencies of $2.5 million or below are people who own their own agency – they may be in a small community, but they have now gotten away from selling travel because they are big enough to have one or two staff, but the problem is they don’t have time to grow the business.

“If they want to spend more time growing their business and less time on administrative work , and they really want to be profitable – we can help them with that. There is support, there’s energy, there are people there to help, but they are still running their own business – they just become  part of another family and if they don’t want to be part of the family – that’s fine don’t do it – they can still join – they just don’t engage in those other aspects of it.

We’re a buffet – you choose what you want.

“That’s the audience we want to talk to.  Even TICO has a rule that if someone wants to join us in Ontario, they surrender their licence to TICO, and if for whatever reason if they go back within 365 days they can get their licence back without paying all the start up fees. It gives them a chance to try.”

“The rules that we have as a company are very simple: You must invoice within 48 hours.  You must present a proper invoicing system – these are the rules - our rules are TICO rules.

Someone recently suggested to Friisdahl that,  “all you are doing is taking agents from other agencies to grow your own. You’re taking experienced agents to join you.”

“ But that’s not true.”  He says,

“We have signed up 57 new people into the industry that have never done travel before since we launched our brand new programme.

“The programme takes about three to four weeks before an agent is up and running 100 percent.  Agents pay between $7,500 and up for the programme, but we are not going out like a card mill - what we’re doing is supporting these 57 agents with a full time dedicated person to help them.

“In our courses we teach them travel ethics, conduct, we don’t take everybody who wants to join us – we really don’t. The biggest problem with the industry right now is that if someone writes the TICO exam – they’re a travel agent.  That’s wrong.   People who just take the TICO exam and immediately start selling as a home based agent – that should not be allowed.

“In other provinces they don’t even do that. To me this is one of our biggest concerns – we make our profession so easy to get into – it looks like there is no value in it.

“That’s what we’re trying to change with the TTAND,” says Friisdahl.

If you are new to the industry and you want to be an agent with TTAND you have to have gone through the programme and you have to use their support.

The three to four week programme - one week is in-house at the TTAND office – then an online component.  Then they sign up for a one year programme of training and learning.

“What I’m getting at is that we are continuing to keep trying to build the industry,” says Friisdahl.

“But I don’t want to be an agency that says we have 850 agents, I don’t care about that,  I want to say we have 400 producing agents that are knowledgeable and that represent the travel industry  in a professional manner.

“it really bothers me that some companies can say you can become a travel agent for $400.  That’s what we compete with sometimes – our programme is $7,500 – $400 and you’re an agent – it’s ludicrous.  It’s just wrong.

“That’s what we in the industry have to worry about.  Someone who comes into the industry pays $400 and doesn’t know squat about travel – they take away the value of a travel agent because they don’t bring any value as a travel agent.  That’s what concerns me the most.

As far as compensation, Friisdahl cautions, if you’re a home based agent and you’re not committed and don’t put in your 40 hours – you wont be successful.

Some agents do extremely well – but they are committed he says.

“We have many agents who have been very successful who have come in off the street done the programme and been very successful – and we’ve had some who have dropped out after a year.

“It has nothing to do with working from home – it has to do with one single thing – commitment to getting your name out there and standing in front of people.  We had one agent who did a consumer show.  A Canada celebration event – she rocked it!

“But she was smart – she went to the show paid about $200 dollars to be there – and got everybody to fill out a contest form to win a trip.  Later, she called everyone back– and got a couple of groups out of it.  She put all the ones who said ‘yes’ to marketing on the marketing programme – even though they weren’t actually her customers yet.  She did very well.

“Unfortunately the reality is that some agents who start out being home based agents don’t treat it like a real job – they only go to 50 friends – those 50 people only travel once a year maybe…

There’s no question that not everyone is meant to work from home suggests Friisdahl, noting that many agencies won’t hire an agent unless they already have existing business. So brand new agents just out of school are often out of luck.

Certainly some agencies will take new people.  But they are often concerned about the commitment of time and money for training – and the salaries are low - an average $25,000 to $30,000.

“Then the agents start seeing what a home based agent can make – bringing in $70,000 in commissions” says Friisdahl, “and boom they go home based.”

“From my perspective it’s not easy being a bricks and mortar agency.   We’ve placed 13 or 14 people who trained with us – with agencies – to help them build their agencies.

“We have primary agents and we have our associates – associates work for primary – so we’ve also actually placed 15 or 17 associates with primary agents.

“We’re trying to make sure we are growing the industry making sure we have professional agents – knowledgeable people who have the ability to sell travel or go to a source that can help them if they need the support.

“So again we don’t want to be 1000 travel agents working with TAND – that’s never been my ambition.  I’d like us to be a $100 million agency at a minimum over the next five years – I’d like to see us have enough resources to go into Quebec, but its almost like building it twice.  We have agents in the US asking about us – so we’re looking at that – we might go into the US.   We may even look at the UK, that is very interesting to me, because there the commission splits are very low – and with the model that we have – everything that we do is transferrable to other places in the world – we’ve done that intentionally.

“We’re very focused,” says Friisdahl.

“Our company is based on the 3 Ws

“W – win for the agent, W - win for the supplier which means it will make it a Win for TTAND.

“I believe in us making money when our agents are making money and I believe we show that in how we compensate and how we consistently give more for the same, or less than what other people give. I really really believe that.”

He is also working on a lead programme to bring in more but we have a big referral – but the agent has to go out and start with social media – with Facebook, with Linkedin and with Twitter.

“If we can just get the agent can give us the information about the client – we will take care of staying in front of the client – the old philosophy is ‘out of sight out of mind’. We’ll make sure they stay in sight and stay in mind.

“We have a full time person that just does marketing.  I look at this not as an expense but as an investment in growing our business.  My business is the agents business – if I grow their business I’ll make more money, they’ll make more money the suppliers will get more business – the three Ws.  It’s the backbone of what we do.”

What they provide, says Friisdahl, is “service!”

“And we remember who the customer is.  It may sound funny, but we never forget the agent is both our partner and our customer. They help make decisions – they vote on choices.”

And the company is growing, “Last year we had $17.5 million in sales,  $35 million this year - that’s a 100 percent increase and we’ve put a lot back into the company.

“I really believe in what I’m doing,” says Friisdahl earnestly, “I don’t need to make a killing. I need to make a living.”

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