So let’s say that by some stroke of persuasive power, I have convinced you that the best time to join the travel industry is NOW. Starting now will allow you the time to ramp up and prepare for the pent-up demand that lies just around the corner of this global covid lockdown.
So yeah, now is the perfect time to start your travel business. Your next question is most likely going to be…
Now what? Where do I get started?
There are a number of steps that come next. Choosing a Host Agency is a big part of getting your travel business off the ground. And it’s only the beginning. We go through all the steps in the Travel Agent Marketing Mastercourse. Save your spot <HERE>
But one of the first things you’ll need to do is choose a host agency.
What’s a host agency?
Working with a Host Agency isn’t your only option, but it is the best option when you are starting out. Even if you are a well-seasoned agent, there are benefits of working with a good Host Agent that make the costs worthwhile.
However, choosing the right host can be a daunting experience. There are hundreds. I’d recommend visiting PATH (Professional Association of Travel Hosts) or Host Agency Reviews – Both are great resources that can help you begin your quest to find the one that best suits your needs.
Like finding the perfect Email Service Provider, choosing a host is not an easy decision, but it’s one that is worth taking the time to get right. Sure, you can always switch later, but rarely without penalty. My aim is that after reading this article, you should have the necessary tools to make weeding through the options a little easier and more constructive.
Step One – Troll some Facebook forums
An industry community is a great place to begin your search. I say “begin” because while Facebook travel industry forums are filled with agents like yourself who are eager to offer advice, it is rare that any one agent will have tried multiple hosts. The types of reviews you will get tend to be very general.
But what you will quickly begin to see is which hosts you can cross off your list immediately and which ones are the favourites and worth taking a closer look at.
Step Two – Decide what is most important to you
There is no such thing as a perfect host. As much as I wish I could give you a top 10 list to help you narrow down your search, that list largely depends on factors that are specific to you and at what stage your business is in. If you are brand new to the industry, your needs will differ from those of a more experienced agent.
Step Three – Create a comparison spreadsheet
Nothing better than a good ol’ fashion spreadsheet of features and benefits to help clearly define how each host stacks up against the next in the categories that are important to you.
From your Facebook forum search, take the top 10 or 15 and list them along the “y” axis. Then, along the “x” axis, label each column with the feature to consider.
Your spreadsheet should have headings that look something like this:
Column A – Name of host
Column B – Contact name and details of host
Column C – Host website address
Column D – Enrollment Fees
Most hosts will charge an enrollment fee to join. You may notice that the lower the enrollment fee or annual fee is, the larger commission split that the host will expect.
Column E – What is the commission split?
Ideally, you are looking for a host that offers you a higher commission split. Keep in mind that hosts are businesses too. They need to make money. So if you find a host that offers 80% or higher on commission split, their enrollment or annual fees tend to be higher. This is where a comparison spreadsheet comes in handy. It’s worthwhile plugging in the numbers to see what makes the most sense.
Column F – What is the fee model?
In this column, you’ll want to list any recurring monthly fees that you’ll be responsible for or any bonus structures that should be taken into consideration.
Column G – Is the seller’s licence included?
Many states and provinces across North America require you to have a seller’s licence, and depending on where you are, it can be quite expensive. So first, you’ll want to find out what the laws for selling travel are in your area. There are so many nuances to licences that go beyond the scope of this article, but you do need to factor these costs into your decision.
Column H – Does the host include a GDS (Global Distribution System)?
First off, everybody just refers to it as a GDS. In fact, I am betting that most industry professionals don’t even know what the acronym stands for – I sure didn’t. A GDS is a booking platform specifically designed for the travel industry and primarily used for booking flights, although you can book hotels and car rentals through a GDS as well. But not all travel agents use a GDS because there are alternatives available and there is a learning curve attached to them. Again, this goes beyond the scope of this article, but if you plan on booking a lot of air travel, you’ll want a host that offers a GDS – not all do.
Column I – Does the host belong to a consortium?
Just to confuse things a little more, many hosts belong to a consortium. A consortium is similar to a host agency in that it is a collection of agents or agencies, under one umbrella, that unite with the purpose of securing preferred commission structures with travel vendors. But unlike host agencies, consortia typically do not offer accreditations or backend accounting. You’ll want to ask your host if they belong to any consortium and if so, what additional benefits that provides.
Column J – Is the host preferred with your favourite travel vendors?
This is why it’s important to decide on your niche before deciding on which host to attach yourself to. Each host will have a list of suppliers with which they have negotiated preferred commission agreements. It’s highly unlikely that any host will offer to share their list of partners as a whole but you can ask which travel vendors they work within your niche. Many hosts align themselves with the larger “Walmart” style of travel partner. So, if you plan on becoming a boutique niche travel professional, be sure that the host has the product for the style of travel you intend to specialize in.
Further to complicate things, many hosts offer different commission splits depending on whether you book with their preferred list of suppliers versus if you go rogue and book your own favourite suppliers.
Column K – Does the host offer a CRM (Customer Relationship Management) tool?
You’ll need a CRM. Some hosts will either include one in their package of features or offer discounts for you to get your own. My preference would be to keep your database of clients always separate. Should you ever need to break up with your host, you won’t be tied down to their CRM.
Column L – Is E & O (Errors and Omissions) insurance included?
You will need E&O insurance to operate your business. In brief, E&O insurance covers you for situations where you might be sued by your client and it’s beyond your control. Again, I won’t go into all the details here, but you need to add this to your list. And you’ll only be covered for product that you sell that fall under the umbrella of the host. If you plan on using boutique travel vendors, you’ll need to acquire separate E&O insurance.
Also, you’ll want to know how many agents are covered under their E&O policy to ensure that should something go wrong, there will be enough coverage for you.
Column M – What kind of training or mentoring programs do they offer?
If you are new to the industry, the support level you receive will be vitally important. I would caution though that I have yet to find a host agency that offers perfect grassroots training. Most will offer extensive training on how to use their systems. Most will offer comprehensive supplier product training too, but not too many will teach you how to put it all together. That’s why outside courses (insert humble brag) like what I’ll be offering, are important investments.
Column N – Do they have a supportive community of fellow travel advisors you can lean on?
Community might not be important to some agents who have been in the industry for a while. These agents tend to need less support and, in fact, prefer the no hand-holding approach. But for many agents, who are just starting out, community is really important. It’s nice to have people you can lean on for answers when you get stuck. And invariably, the shit is going to hit the fan on a booking at some point. Mistakes happen. And when it does, it’s comforting to have a sounding board of colleagues who understand the stress you’ll be going through.
Column O – What marketing support does the host offer?
Many hosts will offer some form of marketing that will often come at an additional cost. Find out what’s included, but I wouldn’t put too much emphasis on this benefit. I would much rather be in full control of my own marketing than to rely on that of the host. In other words, don’t get caught paying for services you are not going to use or won’t fully benefit from.
Column P – What accreditations do they have?
Many suppliers will require an accreditation number in order to book. If you are planning on selling a lot of cruises, you’ll want to look out for CLIA. If not, IATA should be enough.
Column Q – How many agents do they have working under their umbrella?
I wouldn’t want to get lost in a sea of agents. At the same time, if you are someone who doesn’t require a lot of hand-holding and extra support, and if the commission split is lucrative, then the number of agents under the host might be less important to me.
Column R – What is the average sales volume per agent under their umbrella?
This one is relatively self-explanatory. Even better than asking for an average, ask what is the range between the top performers and those that are struggling so you’ll have a better idea of what to expect.
Column S – How does their accounting backend work?
One of the main reasons for joining a host is that it frees you up to do what you are best at…and that should be selling travel. It sure is nice to have a team of admin minded individuals who look after your invoicing, payments to suppliers, basically all the paperwork that can bog you down. And it’s also important to know how you’ll be paid and when.
Column T – Does your host supply leads or are you responsible for driving all of your own business?
While it’s not the norm for a host to provide leads to their agents, some do. For those that do, it is important to ask if the client then becomes yours forever or does the client remain with the host?
Column U – Does the host offer emergency after-hours services?
Many hosts will offer emergency after-hour services, but it won’t be free. You’ll want to know costs associated should you require assistance in the wee hours of the morning. Ugh. And you will…at some point.
Column V – What happens to your bookings if you decide things just aren’t working out?
It’s not uncommon for an advisor to move hosts during their career. In fact, it might even be advisable to do so. Again, the level of support you will need when you are starting out will differ greatly from what you’ll need once you get the hang of things. You won’t always need all the bells and whistles that a full-service host may offer. But…you gotta know. What happens with your bookings when you move?
Column X – What is the corporate culture of the host?
Maybe this isn’t of premium importance to you, but it’s still worth noting. Are they buttoned up and formal or are they quirky and fun? You can ask, “what three words would describe your company culture?” See what they say. You can also get an idea from perusing their website to get a feel for the style of the host if that is important to you.
Column Y – Does your host offer any legal services should your business need them?
I don’t know of any host that offers legal services as part of their package, but if your host is affiliated with an association like ASTA, a free 15-minute consultation is included as part of the membership.
Column Z – Ask for references of agents you can contact.
Finally, get the name of up to three agents you can contact as references. At this stage, you are probably thinking…really Diane…after all of that; you want me to call three more agents
Yeah, that might seem like overkill, but again, by the time you’ve worked your way through this comparison spreadsheet, only a few hosts will start to emerge as clear winners. And if you’ve put in so much work already, why not take that extra step and make some calls? It may be well worth your efforts in the end.
Summary – It is the combination of features and benefits listed above and how you personally weigh the importance of each that will determine which host makes the most sense for your travel business.
Yikes, there you have it. It’s a lot to consider — but I promise you… it gets easier. Hang in there with me. Once you nail down your host, all the other steps to starting your travel business begin to fall in place. It is definitely worth doing the legwork upfront to set yourself on the best path possible.
And if you know someone who is might benefit from this article, why not pass it on?