Become the trusted advisor…

We keep being told about the value of the travel consultant re-emerging as a trusted advisor in the Internet age.

And once again this was the thrust of a research report released by the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) last week which pinpoints the two greatest challenges for travel agents in the 21st century: demonstrating our relevance and value to consumers and suppliers and attracting and retaining a new generation of professionals.

CLIA defines the ‘Next Generation of Travel Advisors’ as having a strongly entrepreneurial “can do” mindset; a flexible and nimble business model that allows for quick leverage of changing technology, economic conditions and the competitive landscape; and accredited education and training in line with what is required in such a complex travel industry environment.

Here are some of the initiatives it says will ensure the “next generation” is fully equipped for success:

•    Research to better understand the market: Get a better understanding of the expectations of today’s travel consumes particularly Gen X and Gen Y generations;
•    Communications to reestablish the value of travel agents: A broad public outreach with a focus on the younger generation that communicates the value of working with a professional travel advisor;
•    Educating a new workforce: The industry must do a better job of attracting students enrolled in universities offering degrees in travel and tourism and hospitality management; and
•    Ways to build and leverage credibility: Provide and support professional development and certification programmes that promote high-level standards and will win the trust of the consumer.

If you want to read the full report, simply click here

Cancellation clauses – Check your T&Cs!

While we’re all navigating the grey waters of the Consumer Protection Act, inevitably there are going to be instances like the one we encountered last week that leave us scratching our heads…

The case last week saw a consumer taking an ASATA member to the National Consumer Council (NCC) after cancelling a trip on his doctor’s advice. The consumer, who refused at the time of booking to take out cancellation insurance, is now referring to Section 17(5) of the Act that addresses the consumer’s right to cancel if hospitalisation or death occurs; neither of which in this particular case was relevant.

Goldman Judin’s Gareth Cremen sheds some light on the situation for us:

One of the problem areas in the Act is section 17(5) which says that a supplier cannot charge a cancellation fee in respect of a booking, reservation or order if the consumer is unable to honour the said booking, reservation or order due to death or hospitalisation.

The fundamental rule of interpretation of statutes is that where the meaning of any provision is clear and unambiguous, that meaning must be accepted. It is clear that section 17(5) does not cover “ill health” and one cannot simply read this in. If a consumer is unable to honour a booking, reservation or order due to ill health and has a doctor’s note advising the consumer that they cannot travel then they cannot rely on section 17(5) as it does not give the consumer protection.

You will however get consumers who will abuse any process possible and report any of the suppliers (including the travel agency) to the NCC. Travel insurance usually covers cancellation of bookings etc, but the problem is that consumers often refuse to take out travel insurance.

In this scenario, the consumer should not succeed with reporting the suppliers to the NCC. However, there is always a degree of risk involved and I suggest that all suppliers in the travel industry incorporate provisions on their booking forms and terms and conditions which cater for this type of scenario.

Because I’m worth it… The service fee debate

There were some interesting findings in research conducted by the University of Pretoria’s Professor Berendien Lubbe and colleagues on service fees. You may recall ASATA asking you for input on the topic recently.

Other than the obvious finding that consumers remain unaware of the value attached to travel agent services, the study makes an interesting suggestion: Differentiate your service fees based on the level of knowledge of consultants, the quality of services rendered and the level of customisation required by the consumer.

The report didn’t survey the end consumer. Rather it looked at agents perceptions of the service fee situation so it does have its limitations, but it remains fascinating that consultants don’t believe consumers value their role in straightforward consultation, whether it be for domestic or international travel. Consumers don’t necessarily understand the value of time saved and specialist knowledge provided by agents.

Ironic when you consider we keep getting told agents need to reinvent themselves and become ‘consultants’ providing expert knowledge of destinations, value-added quality service and cater for customised needs.

The agents who took part in the survey ASATA sent out on behalf of the University of Pretoria apparently believe consumers value and are willing to pay for the traditional services of assisting with visa arrangements, group bookings and issuing flight documents.

The report also profiles the type of customer more willing to pay for travel agency services: men more often than women, between the ages of 35 and 55 years, falling within the categories of highly qualified and higher levels of information.

Interestingly, only about half of the agents who participated in the study, said they explain to customers why certain fees are charged, which could point to the unwillingness of consumers to pay service fees.

The report advocates informing your customer about the value of the service you provide and advises owners to solicit input from their consultants when structuring service fees because they are the main contact point between the travel agency and the customer.

Finally, the report cites the three greatest challenges to determining what service fees are charged: Assessing the indirect cost of a service to the travel agency; assessing the cost of the time spent with a customer and assessing the prices that competitors charge for similar services.

What’s all this talk of TOMSA?

Your verification agency may have asked you if you are a TOMSA levy collector and if not told you that you are losing out on earning points towards your BEE Scorecard. But what is it? Other than another travel acronym to add the long list, you may think.

TOMSA (Tourism Marketing Levy South Africa) is a private-sector initiative aimed at raising funds for the marketing of destination South Africa. Levy collectors range from accommodation establishments, tour operators and even car rental agencies, in fact any other companies whose core business is focusing on facilitating arrangements for inbound tourists visiting South Africa.

The levy is voluntary and collected by the Tourism Business Council of South Africa (TBCSA) and is given to South African Tourism to fund their extensive marketing commitments to promote South Africa as a tourist destination.

South African travel agents currently are not TOMSA levy collectors and hence ASATA Members are not required to contribute to the fund. ASATA Members are primarily involved in facilitating travel arrangements for South Africans whether it is for their corporate or leisure activity. For their domestic travel arrangements those travellers will pay the TOMSA levy in their capacity as a guest of the hotel, guest house, ground transport operator and or other companies in the supply chain.

In March the TOMSA Board agreed to extend their levy collector base to travel agents and other Tourism industry partners but no indication has been forthcoming as to the amount to be collected and ASATA has a concern that this would in fact be a double whammy for our customers as they would be paying the levy when they stay at most local hotels.

There is no doubt that we would support initiatives that encourage the promotion of South Africa but are cautious about burdening our customers with any further taxes or levy’s at this time!

If you need a letter explaining this position to your verification agency, please send a request to general@asata.co.za

Welcome to ASATA’s Blog

In mid-March it seems inappropriate to extend my wishes to you for a happy year ahead, but unfortunately no one warned me about the way in which this year was to begin and only now am I able to lift my head and introduce you to my new blog.   Yes, we at ASATA are joining the ranks of the social media contributors and have launched into the Tweeting, Facebooking and Blogging goings-on.

In 2011, I exercised every bit of restraint and chose not to send out my ‘long-winded’ newsletters as I thought you might have had enough to read.  We chose to keep you informed via our bulk mail notifications but I must say that it is evident that we are missing out on a good opportunity to communicate with you and keep you informed.

Having taken my tongue out of my cheek…the truth is, writing a newsletter is time consuming and takes great effort and quite frankly the year ran away with me and I ended up playing constant catch up, but 2012 has promised to be different.

“Chicken or Beef? Musings of the ASATA CEO” seemed like an interesting catch phrase for the Association blog and we will use this forum to communicate with you.  I cannot promise that each Friday you will receive an update from me, but I can promise that whilst irregular, it will be more forthcoming and will be the chance for you to respond directly.

We will not replace the industry advisory notes we send out via our bulk mail facility but I will update you on industry issues and the ASATA position on those issues.  The blog is also open to a more public domain, which must always be remembered.

I am excited and always looking for content so let me know what it is you would like us to research and fill you in on.  But please remember, your feedback is so important for us, so no matter how big or small, clever or silly you think it may seem to you – to us it is a story!