“Agents, you're not powerless“

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Destination marketer on role of agents in destination recovery

David Bierman’s job is to sell Israel to tourists. Now wait a minute – isn’t Israel a war-torn country, where bombs go off all the time? Why in the world would anyone go there? Well this year, there has been a 70 percent growth in the number of tourists going to Israel. If we in Asia perceive Israel (and the Middle East) to be a security hazard, then the Westerners, who brand South-east Asia as dangerous because of a bombing in Jakarta, are no different.

Addressing travel agents at an Abacus conference in Bangkok this month, Bierman, the director of the Israel Tourism Office (Australasia and South-west Pacific), said agents need to know more than their clients if they are to overcome the perception hurdle.

“When you think of a destination, take your perceptions and throw them away,” said the man who authored “Restoring tourism destinations in crisis”.

“Most people’s idea of not going to a destination is based on fear and it’s based on perception.”

He said Israel is no different from countries in this part of the world who have gone through some from of crisis: Vietnam post-war; Thailand after the Asian economic crisis; India after the threat of nuclear war over Kashmir; Hong Kong and Singapore after SARS; Sri Lanka after the peace process; Indonesia after the Bali bomb blast and so on.

“We’re not powerless,” he told the roomful of agents, citing the success story of how the Australian travel trade worked with the government on travel advisories.

The deal – the industry disseminates advisories in return for industry consultation in content. The result – the Charter for Safe Travel.

He also cited the example of Kenya which last year was decimated by travel advisories that said there might be a threat of terrorist attacks.

“We met diplomats and officials who issued these advisories and asked what we needed to do to get them to lift the advisories. Within a month, the British government lifted the ban on flights and now Kenya is enjoying a boom,” said Bierman.

“A dead traveller is not good for our business.

“Governments issue advisories because they want to cover their ass. It tends to tell you a worse situation than it actually is. A lot of agents say, ‘we can’t do anything about it.’”

“You can actually help by being the source of accurate information,” he said.

This can be done by establishing contacts with the foreign ministries and diplomatic corps; offering to brief ambassadors being sent to destinations they deal with; providing reliable contacts in countries they deal with and supporting operators, NTOs and others who work in the destinations they frequently sell.

He said agents need to make destination recovery a “good news story” and a business opportunity.

“Recovery from crisis is often about teamwork. You need to get testimony from people whose image matters.

“It’s important to be part of an industry alliance to market the recovery strategy. You need allies in airlines, hotels, operators, attractions, media and travel retailers.”

Part of crisis recovery is also re-imaging, a destination makeover. This was seen in the numerous rebranding campaigns that were launched by NTOs keen to start afresh, he said.

How agents can help destination recovery marketing

  • Be positive about the travel product you are selling and prepare to overcome objections and negative perceptions.
  • Be aware of the best source of information. Do not rely on the media alone.
  • Know more than your clients and the media about the destination you sell.
Preventive strategies to protect your agency from crisis
  • Diversify your product and destination range
  • Always sell travel insurance.
  • Onsell land product with airfares. Package programmes are a security benefit to clients and a yield advantage to you.
  • Position yourself as a travel expert, not a travel booking clerk.
  • Be confident in destinations you are selling.
  • Anticipate the tough questions and negative but inaccurate perceptions.

Make good use of a fam trip

  • Produce a written report as soon as you get back while it’s fresh.
  • Share information with management and staff especially your clients.
  • Put photographs and articles on your website.
  • Publicise in local media and trade press.
  • Make relevant comments to your host airline, hotelier, tour operator, NTO and other principals. All appreciate feedback.

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