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Selecting a corporate travel agency.

Selecting a Corporate Travel Agency

As a service to our readers, Utah Business publishes a service guide each month. This issue we feature travel agencies from across the state (see pages 38-39). In addition to contact information (phone and fax), the directory lists agencies' services in six categories of interest to businesses. All agencies listed responded to a questionnaire sent out by Utah Business.

"Many agencies today are billing themselves as |leisure travel specialists,' refusing to admit that business travelers are their bread and butter," says Michael Cameron, president of Christopherson Travel. The sentiment is echoed in newspaper travel sections across the nation; yet American firms spend over $100 billion a year on business travel, and business travelers occupy more than half of all nonresort hotel rooms and domestic airline flights. Though Utah firms account for a relatively small percentage of this national traffic, they do own a lion's share of the Intermountain West regional market. Travel agencies may not advertise to business travelers, but, make no mistake, competition is fierce for the commissions they represent.

The Bid for Business

In choosing a travel agency, large firms often have a few more options than their smaller counterparts. Chief among these is the ability to send out a request for proposal (RFP) to interested agencies. Essentially a bid solicitation, the RFP is sent by companies for travel accounts in excess of $100,000. Qualified agencies receiving the RFP respond with a proposal, complete with vendor and corporate references. Firms should investigate these agencies before they make commitments.

Smaller businesses selecting agencies without this formal bidding process should still request vendor/corporate references directly from the agency. While they won't get the large volume discounts offered to big corporations, these smaller firms can still expect to find agencies willing to help them save on their frequent travel.

Large companies also have the option of hiring two or more travel agencies to handle their needs. Jon Jones, president of The Travel Zone, says, "Large corporations can and should use two agencies to foster competition, then leave the choice of agency up to individuals. This gives the corporation a way of measuring and comparing service." Or separate agencies may be given separate divisions of the same corporation. In either instance, the company benefits from the competition for its travel dollars.

Service - The Deciding Factor

Most agents agree that these travel dollars are won not by the quality of their product (airline tickets, rental cars, and hotel rooms are universally offered), but by the quality of their services. Closely examining these services is, undoubtedly, the best way to differentiate between prospective agencies. If an agency doesn't offer free travel insurance, won't guarantee the lowest available airfare, or doesn't offer free ticketing and worldwide delivery, they shouldn't be considered. There are too many agencies willing to offer these services; therefore, it is essentially a waste of time talking with those that don't. The agencies that businesses should be speaking to offer all the standard services above, plus the kind of individualized, specialized amenities business travelers need.

Individual preference profiles are one such amenity. Many sophisticated agencies maintain these files on personal business traveler's likes and dislikes with the aid of a computer (most common is the STAR system). Airline seat choice, food, type of rental car, size of hotel room, and numerous other preferences are recorded. Frequent flyer numbers and milage and bonus awards are kept as well. Agents then use this information to tailor a travel package for individual business clients.

Emergency travel services run the gamut from an answering machine to an on-airport travel agent. To the business traveler snowed-in at Cleveland, there is a huge difference in these two extremes. Many agencies offer a toll-free number as part of their emergency service, but businesses should find out when the line is answered and by whom. Some agencies only answer their lines from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. Others contract lines out to a messaging service with no knowledge of the travel industry. What most stranded travelers need, and the best agencies provide, is a knowledgeable travel agent with access to an on-line reservations system. Because a toll-free number is the linchpin of a quality emergency services program, businesses should check this aspect of an agency out very carefully.

Many agencies get the final nod from companies for their ability to create attractive incentive programs for clients. Whether the program is a sales competition for a two-week Hawaiian vacation or a ski retreat for the company's first 100 customers, businesses should look for agencies willing to handle these types of ventures. Says Katie McDaniel of Cruise & Travel Masters, "A good agency will not only supply the travel package, but help the corporation with pricing, promotion, art, writing, and distribution - all in-house."

With so many agencies offering similar services, in the end firms may choose to go to their collective "gut instinct" for the decision. They should remember how they were treated during the courtship/bid process. If they were put on hold or transferred often, they should question whether the agency is too small or large for their needs. Businesses should note the speed and efficiency with which the agency responded to requests and messages. Companies whose employees travel extensively might benefit by starting an in-house travel service. "It's wise to do that if a company's annual air volume ranges from $500,000 to $1 million," said Randall Hunt, vice president of Morris Travel. "A commercial travel agency can adequately handle about $750,000 a year in air volume. If your company uses more, you need to add a second service."

Finally, a word on the alphabet soup of professional travel associations. The largest is the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) with 20,000 member agencies in 125 countries. A distant second in size with 2,000 members is the Association of Retail Travel Agents (ARTA). After these come the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), the International Airlines Travel Agency Network (IATAN), the National Tour Association (NTA), etc. Of the two main associations, ARTA and ASTA, ASTA is the more active overall, and charges members more dues. Both groups impose a set of bylaws on member agencies, regulating conduct and ethics. Many agencies belong to both associations.
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Title Annotation:includes business service guide of travel agencies
Author:Barrus, Jeff
Publication:Utah Business
Article Type:Directory
Date:Nov 1, 1991
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