Bonds between agents and operators are valuable, says Gemma Antrobus, Aito Specialist Travel Agents chairman

I’ve written about the value of partnerships before, but it’s a topic that we all need reminding about regularly.

I’m the first to wave the flag for close relationships between tour operators and travel agencies. I believe there is huge value in close working partnerships, and that all parties can benefit from this. I love chatting to new Aito members – agents and operators – about how to get the most from the relationship. At a recent Aito Agents networking dinner, agents and trade-facing operators had a great conversation on the topic.

There are always different schools of thought on working with travel agents. Some operators don’t believe in the agent model or see its benefits, but I think this is as a tad blinkered and not in line with the changing times.

Common goal

Independent agents come in many shapes and sizes, and the diversity of ways in which to bond these days has created a varied landscape. From ‘miniples’ trading under one brand, to single‑entity homeworkers, we share a common goal – to provide the best possible service to our clients. As an agent, it’s impossible to know everything about destinations worldwide – and that’s why we rely on niche operators to fill in the gaps.

The likes of Virgin Holidays dropped commercial relationships with agencies years ago, clearly not seeing value in our huge distribution channels. This has allowed agents to become more creative, and to forge new relationships with operators that care about the agent model. Most now barely remember working with Virgin Holidays.

Operators who understand that the agent is in fact ‘their’ customer are the ones who win in today’s market. A well-known Aito operator, Inside Asia Tours, cites this ‘lightbulb’ moment as the turning point for the growth in its trade business. Rewriting the company’s procedures to educate staff on how to work with a travel agent – treating the agent as the end consumer, rather than a provider of information – has grown the business exponentially, and relatively easily. This, coupled with more independent operators now selling only via the trade, makes for a really enjoyable and mutually-beneficial working relationship with them all.

Mutual benefits

For agents, think carefully about with whom you work. Sometimes a relationship goes beyond commission rates and voucher incentives. It’s about which suppliers won’t take a direct booking from a client who originated from you, or those that help you out of a hole with a tricky client or a situation of some kind in resort that is out of your control. These can often be costly scenarios to resolve, and a genuine partner will work with you on them for mutual benefit.

For operators, even if you work with the trade and have a trade-friendly reservations team and on‑the-road reps, regularly remind them that the agent is their client and that the language they use and the service they provide should reflect this.

And, for those operators who don’t work with the trade yet…do please give me a call.