A Travel Agent Guide to Researching & Qualifying Suppliers

June 5, 2019

In HAR’s last few articles about booking travel, we talked about qualifying clients with a brief digression into whether or not agents should say the “B-word.”

The next step of the booking process is to research itineraries/ and to qualify suppliers. That’s right . . . you have to qualify clients and suppliers!

As is the case when qualifying clients, taking a thorough (and focused) approach to qualifying suppliers will not only help you craft an amazing itinerary, but it will help your travel agency in the long run. How, you ask? Hear me out:

Researching a trip for a client is much more than planning a one-off itinerary . . . It’s a step on a career-long journey of developing expertise as a travel agent and building relationships with Business Development Managers (BDMs) that represent different vendors.

Qualifying suppliers to plan itineraries that are a good fit for your client is where your value as a travel advisor really shines. It separates you, the travel agent, from online travel agency (OTA) giants (read more on this here). The more time and intention you invest in this step, the better the payoff will be for you in the long haul.

Why You Need a Niche to Research & Qualify Suppliers

We will say this until we are blue in the face: You need to have a niche. When you’re starting out, it’s tempting to try to be all things to all travelers. Yes, I’ll book your one-off (economy class) flight to Italy for your family of 4. Yes, I’ll book your all-inclusive land trip. Yes, I’ll book your Disney trip. Sure, I’ll book that cruise. But imagine trying to learn about all these products simultaneously while still developing your business! EGADS!

If you spread yourself too thin trying to learn many different types of travel to different destinations for different kinds of travelers (yeah, there’s a lot to consider), you’ll be waaay more stressed out and won’t develop the expertise (or efficiency) you need.

As a travel agent, having a niche—focusing on one or two types of travel in a specific region, type of travel, or destination—will help you develop expertise and focus your research process.

Think of it like this, if you were a pediatrician and an adult came to you asking for advice about skin problems, you’d explain to them that you’re not that kind of doctor and refer them to a dermatologist. Could you give them advice? Probably. But do you want dozens of people coming to you showing their rashes that’s not on a baby’s butt? No thanks. You didn’t sign up for that and you wouldn’t go back to medical school to try to learn a new branch of medicine.

The same goes for being a travel advisor. Trying to book every type of travel under the sun is not efficient. In the end it will prevent you from developing expertise and effectively managing your time. So if someone wants you to book something outside your niche, consider this:

  1. Am I passionate about the type of travel?
  2. Is it worth the time and research to learn a new type of travel?
  3. Do I want to become an expert in this type of booking?
  4. Is it worth the time, resources and it will take to learn this new type of travel? (Remember, the time you spend learning a new product is time you could be spending developing more expertise and marketing for sales toward your specialty).
  5. Will I be able to realistically keep up with all the product updates for this new type of travel in the long run?

If you answered No to any of these questions, you may want to refer the client to a different advisor and move along. Sticking to your specialty (or intentionally deciding to expand what you specialize in) will make your research process waaay more effective.

It’s okay. You can say No. It may be that the hardest part of itinerary planning is not to do it, but you’ll get used it, and your life will be the better for it.

4 Goals of Qualifying Suppliers

Here’s a few goals with your research process:

1. Present Clients with trip itineraries that hit different price points

You want to respect your client’s budget, AND you also want to show them value-adds that you can offer that may cost them more if they planned/booked with suppliers on their own (transfers, upgrades, land tours etc.) Try to anticipate “impulse buys” your client might make, and be sure to present an itinerary option that includes that as well.

Can one supplier provide all these things? Do you need/want to look for additional suppliers to create a more robust itinerary?

In a previous article, travel agent Rochelle Lardy Zemke said, “I simply ask for a price range because that's what they think their trip should cost. I will then quote a trip for exactly what they want and one that fits their budget. It's a learning experience for some clients and not even necessary for others.”

2. Anticipate client’s needs/questions

The more thoroughly your research suppliers, the faster your client will be able to make their final decision. When you know a product inside and out, you'll be better able to anticipate questions a client may have about the products and include them in your initial pitch. If they still have questions, you'll be able to answer it up front without having to go back and check when you know a product well. Knowing your client and tailoring your supplier research to their needs will help minimize back and forth between you and the client, making this segment of the sales process that much faster.

3. Find Suppliers that exceed your clients’ expectations

Something about your itinerary should surprise your client. You’ll want your clients to think (or say), “I never thought of that!” It might be a destination that hits all their needs they didn’t consider or a land tour/ activity that fits with their interests but that they’ve never tried. If you find suppliers that accomplish this, they’ll be hooked on your services.

4. Find suppliers you want to work with (again and again).

This is a biggie, so we go into more depth on finding suppliers that will be your forever friends later in the article. So sit tight (or okay, just click here to fast forward to that section, but you’ll probably miss out on some other informative gems 😉).

Finding suppliers and building itineraries will take some time, but it’s time well spent. As you develop experience and build stronger supplier relationships, this step will probably become quicker for you! So have patience with yourself if you don’t have the expertise already—it doesn’t come overnight!

8 Qualities to Look for in a Travel Suppliers/ Vendor:

1. You can stand behind them:

It may sound obvious, but you want to stand behind the suppliers you choose. In an ideal world, you will have experienced these suppliers directly via FAMs (familiarization trips) or otherwise.

Of course you may book some trips that clients ask for that you would NEVER take yourself. But maybe they still jive with your unique travel agency niche or mission in other ways. Your personal support from a supplier will translate into enthusiasm when you chat with your client about them.

2. Their BDMs and reservationists provide great service:

I hear nightmare stories of agents being on hold for hours trying to book with a supplier. During peak booking seasons, some of this can be expected, but it should be the exception, not the norm.

If all booking is online, is there are an easy way to reach out for support if you need it? If something goes awry for a client on the trip, is there someone you can talk to?

While a supplier shouldn’t be expected to handhold a travel agent through booking and planning an entire trip, they are there to help and share their expertise on products and destinations. How do you know if this is the case if you’ve never worked with them? Take it to the streets (errrr . . . Facebook Groups) and get insight/ recommendations from other trusted agents!

3. They complement other suppliers you work with:

If you’re trying to focus your bookings with a shortlist of suppliers you love, find suppliers that offer products that don’t overlap too much with suppliers you already use. Diversity is the spice of life!

4. They’re a good fit for your client:

Okay, so maybe this goes without saying. But you don’t want to book your client at the “wrong” hotel, cruise ship, resort or destination. It won’t end well for anyone!

But don’t worry, you have already qualified your client extensively. Write a checklist of your client’s “must-haves” and “preferences.” When you weigh a supplier against what your client is looking for, it will give you a concrete way to explain to clients how/why/ what marks the different suppliers hit at different price points.

5. The commission is favorable to you:

Commission alone shouldn’t dictate what suppliers you work with, but let’s face it—it’s a huge determining factor. At the very least, you can start researching from the top down, beginning with suppliers that offer a great commission for you and a fantastic value to your client.

Lauren Liebert on our Think Tank Group also mentioned that suppliers should be clear about when/how they pay commissions. Sheesh! Why didn't I think of that?! Thanks, Lauren!

6. They have a good relationship with your consortium:

Starting with your consortium’s preferred supplier list is a great way to go if you’re worried about being overwhelmed by choices.

If you don't belong to a consortium directly, your host agency or franchise probably does. In this case, your host or franchise might be a heavyweight even if you’re not. This will equate to more favorable commissions and greater leverage for you as an agent when it comes to perks and value-adds.

If you are independent (without a host or consortium), you may want to consider becoming a member of a consortium so you can benefit from stronger supplier relationships!

7. They will help you market your trip:

Suppliers may have marketing dollars (co-op dollars) agents can use to help promote trips among their clients. This may come directly from the supplier or by way of your (or your host’s) consortium. If this is an option, it’s definitely icing on the cake!

8. They are active in the travel community:

Do they offer webinars? Do you see them at conferences that are relevant to their product? Do they have travel agent Facebook groups? If not, that could be a red flag.

Tips on Researching Suppliers for Specific Itineraries

Once you narrow down what suppliers you may want to present to your client (by using the qualifications above), you can go into more detail about individual vendors. Here’s a few things that you’ll want to know about specific suppliers before including them on a potential itinerary for your client:

Anticipate questions clients will have:

What are the amenities on the cruise? What are the advantages of different room rates? How much is the drink package if it’s not included? What’s the per person fee increase for a single berth? How much extra is a berth with a balcony opposed to ocean view opposed to an interior room? Is there a balcony suite on the same floor as a ship casino, because uncle Earl seriously refuses to use the elevator once he’s on the boat. Will Grandma Millie be able to go out on the beach-facing patio using her walker?

The goal is to limit back and forth as much as possible. While you don’t need to tell your clients all this info, you need to have it at your fingertips so you can answer their questions. Can they Google some of this information? Yes. Do you want them to? No.

Get sensory: Focus on Experience (not just logistics):

Another thing the OTAs can’t tell clients is that if they travel to Mérida -- the capital of the Mexican state of Yucatán — in August they’ll be able to smell the honey scent of Lebbeck trees once they step out onto their resort patio. If they go in the winter season, they won’t smell them but they can hear them rattling in the breeze. The OTAs can’t describe the awe-inspiring moment of seeing the northern lights of Iceland for the first time. But guess what, YOUR itinerary can!

If you don’t know, ask your BDM:

BDMs (business development managers) are your friends. If you don’t know about the lovely smell of Lebbeck trees because you’ve never been to a FAM, all you need to do is ask your BDM. Ask them what your clients can experience at their property/destination at the time of year they want to travel. If you don’t have a BDM contact, ask the supplier (or your host, if hosted) for the contact info of your BDM.

Tips on Building Longer-Term Relationships with Suppliers

Build relationships (not just itineraries). Sam Combs, Senior Director of Corporate Sales, Apple Leisure Group suggested, "Don't just shop suppliers on price. Check out what will provide higher commissions and provide the best value. Find the supplier and operator who sells a majority of what you sell yourself. If you sell Mexican and Caribbean, find a supplier that focuses their products in those destinations."

Focusing on finding “forever friend” suppliers will help you develop your own personal “preferred supplier list.”

Here’s a few ways to do that:

  1. Geek out on their webinars [have you checked out the webinar on our events calendar?]
  2. Stay current on their updates and changes
  3. Seek them out at travel conferences
  4. Engage in their travel agent group on FB (if such a thing exists)
  5. Take their online tutorials of their booking portal
  6. Apply for their FAMs

You probably won’t have to do all of this before planning an itinerary if it’s a newer supplier for you, but these are steps you can take in the long term to continue developing your expertise.

Congratulations, You’re a Pro!

If you’ve taken all these steps, you’ll basically have Rainman-level knowledge of your suppliers. You’ll be able to rattle off facts to clients, and whip up itineraries much faster.

Do you have tips on how you qualify suppliers? Comment below! We don’t want to leave any stone unturned.

Next up, we'll talk about putting those itineraries together (and pitching them) to your client!

About the Author
Mary Stein - Host Agency Reviews

Mary Stein

Mary Stein has been working as a writer and editor for Host Agency Reviews since 2016. She loves supporting travel advisors on their entrepreneurial journey and is inspired by their passion, tenacity, and creativity. Mary is also a mom, dog lover, fiction writer, hiker, and a Great British Bake Off superfan.