I’m very impressed that agencies are jumping on the train of online marketing channels. We’ve been doing this for the last 20 years – so welcome to the club. What took you so long?
Marketing yourself via the Internet is complicated, and it’s a completely different science from what travel agencies did in the past. The rule is: be where your audience is.
Your audience have been on social media for a long time, but social media can be an extremely expensive channel to market your products through promoting posts and advertising. It used to be effective, but I would argue that it’s not any more.
Focus on what you’re good at. Home-based agents are very good at building and maintaining relationships. I don’t think home-based agents can compete with those agencies which do online really well, because of budget constraints. But, what they can do online, is build up some sort of niche.
Look at who your audience is and how you get to them. If you build up a strong following via social media, you can communicate to them in that way. You can build a following by promoting something that’s very specific, and in a tone that resonates with your target audience. You then have a very defined audience who are already fans of your brand and what you’re doing, so you’re preaching to the converted – but that works!
Because of the volumes Travelstart has as an online channel, the onslaught of changes needed to bookings and the airlines’ failure to communicate properly regarding refunds etc. meant that we suffered. We simple couldn’t deal with the thousands and thousands of people coming at us at the same time. The whole thing broke down for a couple of weeks. We don’t have the same ‘touchy-feely’ relationship with our customers. So, here’s the opportunity for those with face-to-face relationships with customers to regain some trust, which people have lost, and to rebuild relationships with those customers who had turned to online channels.
What we do want to change, as an online agency, is finding alternative ways of getting to our customers so as to lessen our dependency on Google. We can do this through email, increasing the use of the app (which is 25% of our current business), push notifications, and so on.
I think that people will also travel less frequently now, so if there’s a few hundred rands’ difference between an agency’s rates and online, some clients will not worry about that. They might want some hand-holding, so there’s an opportunity.
It’s stupid for offline agents to compete head-to-head with online companies, because they won’t have a chance. They have to build on their strengths – the one-to-one relationships.
Stephan Ekbergh is the founder of Travelstart and a former professional DJ and seasoned travel industry veteran. A solid entrepreneur and visionary by heart, he has worked and invested in a number of travel companies. In 1997 he founded Mr. Jet, Northern Europe’s first transactional online travel company, before launching the Travelstart portfolio in 1999 – a business he later successfully expanded internationally. In 2006 Travelstart South Africa was launched, as the country's first online travel agency and current market leader. In early 2010, Stephan sold the European arm of his business and has since then spent his time expanding the business throughout Africa. Stephan’s passion is to contribute to establishing travel e-commerce in new markets and innovation. He and his wife have lived in Cape Town since 2004.