Travel consultancy – it’s not brain surgery

Following these simple tips will solve most of the problems except the number one complaint of hotel guests - noise.

Travel agency in Jerusalem (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Travel agency in Jerusalem
I’m often asked what makes a good travel consultant and if there is a future for the profession.
It’s a consultative sales job where the best travel agents are perceived as a trusted advisor. This means relationship-building and a collaborative partnership.
So when a travel agent sends me the following, I’m intrigued: “The hotel told me the mistake I made was using a travel agent who is crap. Their words, not mine. Why did I think that I could cancel the night before I arrived and get refunded? How about because the Best Western told me I could.”
The client, let’s call him Larry, was kind enough to send me the letter from Customer Care at Best Western.
“Dear Larry, Our office received the following response from the management of the Best Western Blue Square Hotel in Amsterdam: I personally already had contact with the guest on the day of his departure. He also had contact with our head office. Since he booked his room by a third party we are unable to refund him due to contract reasons.
A few days after his departure I again had contact with the guest by email. Please advise him to do the same, since we as a hotel will not help him.”
Now let’s start at the beginning. Larry contacted his travel agent in mid-March for a 4 day trip to Amsterdam in May. His request was basic – We are four people and need airfare, with maximum one stop and hotel in Amsterdam.
His travel consultant instinctively knew that with such a broad sweeping email she had to engage him in the decision making process. She threw out several airlines breaking down the prices with all the taxes and informing him where there is a baggage fee. Assiduously, she checked with hotel suppliers and internet sites and gave him lodging options.
Like all good consultants she strived to personalize the relationship. These days most agents try to go upmarket.
Consider the market with only two traveler types: Those with more money than time, and those with more time than money. In many cases, agents can only compete for the former segment’s business. Travelers with more money than time value purchasing a travel agent’s expertise and ability to handle every aspect of the trip. They appreciate the personalized service, with recommendations right from the very first interaction.
Larry had lots of time; he wrote his agent back that he found a flight on KLM for thirty dollars less per person that what she had offered him. But... “We would like to take you up on the Hotel stay at Best Western Blue Square with breakfast.”
A standard quad with breakfast for 4 nights was booked. A credit card was offered by Larry but the agent informed him that there was no rush to charge it and that he could wait until just before cancellation fees went into effect nearer to his departure on May 15th.
Weeks went by and payment wasn’t made until May 9th, six days before his arrival. The agent phoned Larry asking if the hotel was still needed or, if not, that today was the last day to cancel without penalty.
Larry replied in the affirmative and told the agent to go ahead and he gave her his card to charge. “OK. Call me and I will give you the credit card number.” When the agent phoned Larry she went over the cancellation fees, took the credit card details, issued a voucher, charged the card and assumed the deal was done. So the agent thought.
On Friday night, Larry emailed his agent the following: “We wish to cancel the Sunday and Monday part of our reservation (May 15 and May 16.) Please keep the May 17 and May 18 reserved. We apologize for the inconvenience.
Please confirm the cancellation.
P.S. We are unreachable until tomorrow evening after 9:00 pm. We tried calling the hotel, but did not get an answer. Please respond by email.”
Give Larry full marks for trying. Realizing he was checking in on Sunday morning he sent an email after trying to call the hotel no doubt cognizant there would be cancellation fees so close to his arrival. He never mentioned if he tried phoning the travel agency; many offices have after hour’s services. His agent of course never saw the email until she returned to her job on Sunday. Larry called her Saturday night and she immediately tried to contact the wholesaler from whom the hotel had been booked.
As most readers can presume, the hotel took no solace on his last minute cancellation and charged him a cancellation fee. His email succinctly expressed his frustration: “While I can understand a cancellation fee, I don’t understand why we would have to pay the full amount if we cancel 24 hours before arrival. As regular clients of yours and the office, I am very disappointed about this and hope that this can/will be rectified.”
I understand his exasperation although sending an email in Israel on a Friday night and expecting an agent, who as he knew is Shabbat observant (as he is himself) to be online, is pushing the boundaries. Still the agent did everything in her power but the head of operations of Go Global, the giant conglomerate through which the hotel had been reserved replied quite clearly. “Unfortunately the hotel is not willing to waive the charges for the first two unused nights.”
So when the client reached out to me for advice it was clear that the only party to reprieve him of his cancellation fee would be the hotel. The fact that he would be in the hotel for last two nights gave him ample opportunity to plead his case. There’s still the mystery as why he chose to stay in another hotel his first two nights and this Best Western the last two nights. He mentioned something about being scared of the location of the property. Researching my column led me to Tripadvisor where I read a handful of positive reviews that seemed to sum up the hotel in a positive light.
However, Larry told me that he had read diametrically opposite reviews and felt the area could be physically threatening which is why he canceled the first two nights; unclear why the last two nights would be safer though. His cajoling the hotel to waive their cancellation policy fell on deaf ears. It was not an insignificant amount. The travel agency made 10% on his booking. On his $500 stay, they made $50.
Larry is adamant that his agent makes his loss right.
“As someone who has been a long-time client, this is a textbook example of how not to meet a client’s needs from the point of reservation through the resolution of conflict. I cannot understand why client retention is not of the utmost importance.”
I’m not here to chastise Larry why it took him nearly two months after the hotel was booked to decide to cancel 2 nights of his stay. I’m going to believe him that somehow someway he got spooked by sleeping there for half of his stay. I do take umbrage that in these days of internet bookings and mobile apps that travel agents take any clients as a given. Everyone in the travel industry is cognizant that you the consumer have a choice.
He filed a claim with his American Express to stop payment, but the paper trail the agent provided stymied that effort. There is no doubt that Larry will never return to his former travel agency; just like when a bag is lost, too often the travel consultant carries the burden.
However whether you book with an agent or online, these are the basics in how to select your hotel: Price: Typically the main determining factor, as the hotel rate is going to have to fit into your budget.
Location: This has a lot to do with why you’re traveling. If it’s for business, for instance, you’re going to want to be located in a convenient area, whereas if you’re planning to sight see, a hotel that’s centrally located is probably your best bet. And if you just need to relax or get away from it all, you might want to look for something a little more remote or located in a scenic area.
Parking: If you’re arriving by car at your hotel, you’re going to need a place to park. Things to consider here are if the hotel offers parking, how much it charges for that parking, and how secure the parking lot is.
On-site facilities: Depending on what you’re looking for in a hotel, you definitely want to check into what’s located on-site. You may want a pool or a restaurant, or you may be looking for other offerings, such as a spa or a golf course.
Complimentary breakfast: This can make a real difference in your budget and should be factored into the overall rate of the hotel. After all, buying breakfast for a family of four over a week’s time can really add up.
Reliability versus local flavor: This is one of the bigger decisions you have to make when choosing a hotel. You may prefer to stay in bigger chain hotels, where you have a pretty good idea of what to expect.
Or you might be a more adventuresome type, who wants to stay in a family-owned hotel or a bed-and breakfast in order to experience more of the local flavor.
Reviews: Finally, when choosing a hotel, always consult the online reviews. There are websites that are solely dedicated to this purpose, and you can read recent experiences of real customers in order to get a feel for what you can expect.
Following these simple tips will solve most of the problems except the number one complaint of hotel guests - noise. Be it loud occupants or noisy hallways, surveys hold that this is the largest irritant among hotel guests.
Larry’s noise however ultimately led nowhere. The hotel that had the power to refund him refused. The wholesaler informed the travel agent that their hands were tied, while the travel agent patiently tried to explain to Larry that nothing more could be done.
I have long held the opinion that the amount of noise that anyone can bear undisturbed, stands in inverse proportion to his mental capacity and may therefore be regarded as a pretty fair measure of it.
Mark Feldman is the CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem.
For questions and comments email him at [email protected]