05 SEP 2019: The Travel Agent Next Door has a new division - The Agency Solution. Louise Gardiner has signed on as vice president and will oversee the strategic development and sales of the new storefront agency services network. She will recruit smaller store front agencies in the $3 million and under range that are seeking relief from the cost and workload of their admin and back office functions.  

The Agency Solution caters specifically to the needs of the smaller storefront agency, eliminates the cost of regulatory fees, E&O insurance, bank fees and merchant fees. It will also enable agencies to reduce the cost of accounting, payroll, telephones, toll free lines, GDS & technology. The Agency Solution expects to ensure increased profitability and commission levels to smaller agencies.

Agencies can keep their own branding and identity, and will receive customized marketing with a full online presence that includes a website, email and print marketing - as well as a complete social media platform.

We had an opportunity recently to talk to both Flemming Friisdahl, founder of The Travel Agent Next Door and Louise Gardiner the incoming vice president of the new division.

“We are absolutely thrilled to have someone of Louise’s calibre to head up The Agency Solution,” said Friisdahl, “She has the depth of knowledge and understanding of the needs of smaller agencies that will be so important when she speaks to owners.”

Friisdahl said he has found some smaller agencies in the group look at the Travel Agent Next Door as ‘the agency solution.’

After conversation with those agencies he decided that what was needed was “a name that spoke specifically, to the needs of a storefront. So that they understand that we actually are very attentive to what they need.”

Hence the birth of the new concept.

Meanwhile at TTAND ...

After 66 months in existence, The Travel Agency Next Door (TTAND) has a total of 40 staff, and approximately 750 agents. Sales are up on average 49 percent - this year they will finish at about $180 million and he anticipates $300 in sales million by the end of 2021.

“Our whole focus though,” says Friisdahl, “is the technology that we're building.”

TTAND now has a development team in India. When the office in India first opened there was some pushback, even from staff, who wanted to know, "Why aren't we doing this in Canada?"

Aside from the cost effectiveness, Friisdahl’s response was, “Because we can do a bunch of things at nighttime that we can get done and have ready for you by morning. Let me ask you? Who wants to pay more in fees? Who wants more services? Well, everybody is going to put up their hand. Who's going to say no, I don't want more?”

The time change is a real positive. TTAND can now run on 24-hour clock.

“I can't hire people in Canada with a bachelor or masters that works from 11 o'clock at night till nine in the morning and not cost an arm and a leg. Right? I just can't get the team.” Says Friisdahl.

“So, it's really a matter of efficiency. It's a matter of speed. And it's a matter of cost. Right? So, we've been blessed in that we've been able to find the right people to help support us in any way because it's not an easy job.”

Subsequent internal questionnaires (they do them every couple weeks) offer positive agent feedback about the India office and how great it is for agents to come in and have things ready for them.

Technology helps growth

Friisdahl is a firm believer in technology. He believes in automation to streamline the process for client and agent – automatic email verifications on all the details from accounting, credit cards, currency. Such a process ensures no mistakes and leaves the agent more time to grow their sales.

The number of primary TTAND agents grew this year over last year by about 16% or 17%, says Friisdahl.

“This is an important number because we're not growing our sales by 50% because we're growing our agents by 50%.

“We're growing our sales 50% because the agents are selling more. We're having more agents that are seeing 30, 40, 50% growth in their sales because of their electronic marketing, their website and they have more tools available to them to engage their clients.”

“So, you've been focused on all of this for TTAND. How did you that focus suddenly shift to The
Agency solution?” we asked.

“Because something I hear from agents is that they don't know exactly what the next steps are.” Said Friisdahl.

If you're a one million or a two million dollar agency, in the world of travel, you're pretty much very, very, small, he explained, so why would an agency of that size would want to deal with TICO, trust accounting, insurances, creating contracts.
“One of the programs for the agency solution is we can actually help them create their own home based business.

“We've got trainers that train their people. We've got the tools, but if I was A.B.C. Travel it would show A.B.C. Travel.”

And Friisdahl’s solution lets the agency be themselves – maintain their own branding – while of course maintaining TICO rules

Louise Gardiner

Louise Gardiner tells us she was with Carlson Wagonlit Travel “for many, many years. I was one of their original agencies when they started the program back in the mid 90's. And I think it was agency number 10. So basically, I had a lot of experience and we became CWT in the mid 90's and then we sold to Trip Central. She was responsible for setting and implementing CWT’s leisure strategy for the Associate Franchise Program in Canada and as vice president and was involved in various areas including web design, operations and implementing newly acquired agencies.

Very familiar with the industry from both the small and the large perspective, Gardiner joined CWT head office in 2004 and was tasked with growing their associate program of owners across Canada.

“Their viewpoint is very much a branded viewpoint. It's a great program, but it's for larger of these agencies that are looking to have those CWT brand around it.” She said.

“But this really interests me (The Agency Solution) because it's really different and it hasn't really been offered before.” Said Gardiner.

She is the current treasurer on the TICO Board, which gives her, she says, an understanding that there are a significant amount of smaller agencies in the Canadian marketplace that need support.

“They're very successful. Let's face it. They're very proud of what they do. Many of them have been at it for many years, and in fact, some of them might actually be looking for some sort of exit strategy as well. Because the two things that keep owners up at night are one, how am I going to get out of this business and make money at it and two, where am I going to find staff?”

The tools you need

“The program that Fleming's put together with The Agency Solution is just that. It provides you with all of the back office, and mid office tools that you need.

“And the best part is just the whole marketing side because all these years that I've supported owners (and will continue to do so in the future), what I do find is that owners are very good. Most of them in small agencies are also selling travel. They are the leaders of the groups. They have their own customer base. They do have a team network for them, but they love to sell travel and they love to travel themselves.

“But what they're not really loving is the accounting, the payroll and specifically the marketing, because it's almost two different skill sets.

“And you can't be a great sales person, talking to your customers and then also have an entire marketing strategy in the back for you to do.”

Keep the brand

This is where The Agency Solution is going to come in because it's a turnkey, says Gardiner.

“So, you join up and the fees are minimal and all of a sudden you've got a whole marketing division that's backing you up. And you get to keep your brand.”

That of course is the big thing. The agency does not have to give up its brand.

If you’ve been an agency for years and your customers know you and you're proud of that, why would you want to give up your brand? Asks Gardiner.

“It allows you to have the best of both worlds.” She says.

It allows you to be who you've always been, she says, but it gives you a step up now.

“You will easily have a CRM, a customer relationship management tool at your disposal where you can enter the client and then you can do either the e-mail or the beautiful luxury brochure. You can choose who gets what. Everything from marketing to families, marketing to groups. There's so much that's available. You could do it all or you could customize it depending on the focus that your individual agency has. And again, because your logo is there, you're promoting yourself. You're not promoting someone else's plan.”

Gardiner explains that in the Canadian marketplace specifically, although the volume sits with the larger agencies - the numbers are on the other side of the ledger, which is the smaller agencies that are one to three million - and there are so many of them.

“And they have been around for many years, so I think this is a great opportunity, and from my perspective, each one of those are very individual in how they do things and why they do things the way they do. Somebody might have started an agency when they were very young. Might have grown it to be large and it's now downsized and might have wanted it to be small. So that's the idea - to be able to support those smaller storefront agencies across Canada.”

Today says Gardiner, “You have to have the technology and that doesn't necessarily mean that you need to be promoting yourself as a web player, but as an online agency. But having a website, which of course The Agency Solution would provide branded with your logo, looks like you're an online solution.

“It's fully bookable 24 hours a day. And it can be a reactive strategy. So, you're still promoting a Canadian agency - come to the store front, do what you can do. But if you have someone who says ‘I like to book online,’ that's okay. We have that for you, too. For today, agencies don't have that when they're on their own because they often can't afford it. The big player in technology is Saber Age and it's expensive to get licenses. This allows you to have that without paying that price for all of those technology solutions.

Start and grow

As the new vice president of The Agency Solution, Gardiner has worked with Friisdahl to, “crack a logo, work on the business, decide how we're going to go to market. So, we're starting off with getting the name out. That's the beginning, right?

“And we've already had some initial people that have reached out to us that are interested, which is great. And then I've been doing my own research and there are a number of agencies in the area starting with the Ontario marketplace. I come from that world. It is who I am. It is more of the one on one relationships.

“We want to grow this. First of all, we want to grow it in a steady, but manageable numbers so that we're not all of a sudden 500 agencies across Canada that we can't support. The most important thing that Fleming is very transparent. He wants to make sure that we walk the talk. And if we say that we can do something then we can do it.”

“We want to do it nice and slow and steady and so my idea is to reach out to some agencies, write a personal note, encourage them to have an initial phone call with me so that we can build a relationship and some trust. I think in the travel industry, it's a small industry in Canada, and you need the trust level. And you know we will not be a fit for everyone. And we know that.

Making friends

Gardiner made an important point - agency owners can go to an industry event and talk to suppliers and meet people, but they don't often get a chance to talk to other owners and like-minded people.

I think the other thing about being an individual or a smaller agency is that you need some friends in the industry.

“And you can learn a lot from each other.” She said.

“So when you've heard of a network, all of a sudden you have friends in that network. And you go to conferences together and you take training together. And then you make a connection somewhere. Either at your webinar or meeting, or a conference and then all of a sudden you've got a friend. It may not be in your local community, not in your area of competition. But you’ve got somebody to whom you can say, ‘Hey. How do we do ... How do you do social media?’ ‘Well, I use the tools that Fleming and his team provide and this is how we use them. And I find it really simple and it takes me a couple of minutes a day.’

“And so, it doesn't all have to come from the top down. It can come from admiration action as well.

Retirement and recruitment

Gardiner also teaches at Conestoga College because she believes (has ‘this thing’ as she describes it) that within the next five years, everyone in the industry is retiring. “And I worry who's going to be there to open up the doors in the storefront.”

And although and again, there's this wonderful Travel Agent Next Door, and these host agencies, and they are as well doing a great thing to grow independent contractors in the Canadian marketplace. I think that's a great opportunity for existing agents as well as new entrance in the industry. Owners are going to have to find staff at some point.”

And that's again where the training comes in, she says, “because you get somebody new to the industry whether they're an inside agent or whether they're an outside associate, they need to learn product. They need to learn selling techniques. And there's this entire new agent training program here where you can take someone who may have travelled in another career, or when they were young and they were in university or college, and now we can actually make them into a travel agent for us.

“This is all set up. It's not like we're starting fresh - it's a done deal.”

Gardiner says, “statistically people are coming back. From 2018-2019, those that are using a travel agent -statistically those numbers are increasing. So absolutely and I think what other people and probably more consumers don't understand is that an online agency is also a retailer.”

It like when someone asks, ‘why do you need a travel agent? You can just book online.’

“Who do you think fulfilled?” asks Gardiner.

“Who puts the packages together and helps fill in your way and gives you information? That is a retail agent. Whether they sit in a call center, or they sit in a large office, or they work from home, or they're home based, or they sit at a storefront at a small agency, that's retail. That's not wholesale. And when I teach the kids that kind of thing in college, they're just blown away by that, right? That there are retailers. There are wholesalers. And then there are end suppliers.

“And there's a role for each, and you can work for each, but there's a great career to be had, and it's a fantastic industry.”

And isn’t that the truth?

 

 

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