Operators that give unconditional support are agents’ best friends, says Gemma Antrobus, chairman of Aito Specialist Travel Agents

I’ve been reminded over the past few days how now, more than ever before, working with a good tour operator partner is beyond essential.

At Aito, the close working relationship between agent and operator is always top of our agenda.

We often talk about this in terms of driving more business from agent to operator, and about building new relationships. But is this what a perfect working relationship is all about – just the pre‑sale angle?

Working with the right tour operator to deliver an intricately planned itinerary, executed to perfection, is top of many agents’ lists. A huge amount of trust is needed when handing a client to an operator, and this can take years to achieve.

Unconditional support

Working with a partner who’s supportive commercially may be another top requirement, whether this be marketing support, training or commission levels. But the one thing I look for in a perfect operator partner is unconditional support and transparency when things don’t quite go to plan.

For the high street travel agent, the six to eight weeks of July and August are generally when most clients travel, which means more opportunities for things to go wrong.

Regardless of how much planning and checking you do before departure, there are many elements out of our control that could fundamentally ‘ruin’ a holiday for a client – think airline strikes, geopolitical situations, weather and acts of God.

This is when you need to know that your operator partner is willing to do anything to help you turn the situation around for the client and to make the best of a tricky situation.

For the past three evenings, I’ve been on the phone with a director of an operator partner for hours into the night. With time differences where we currently have a client ‘challenge’, office hours simply aren’t sufficient to get the job done.

This is not customer services people dealing with an issue – it’s two business owners talking after hours and doing everything possible to make a client happy. We’ve spoken openly and frankly, thought outside the box, and used humour to chivvy the other along; we’ve worked together to deliver an acceptable solution.

Open approach

I have this relationship and level of personal contact with some, but sadly not all, our partners. I have no qualms about operators having my mobile number; some even have my home number and, likewise, I have theirs. It’s simple things like this that are vital in an effective partnership, especially when a customer has a major problem and time is of the essence.

There are, however, many agents who just won’t share this level of detail with their operator partners. This approach baffles me. As part of the booking chain, I believe it’s the responsibility of both the agent and the operator to provide their customers with a 24-hour emergency number.

I can’t find words to express how grateful I am for the close working partnership I have with this particular operator.
When the proverbial hits the fan, you certainly know who your friends are.