Building a brand that sets you apart

In Travel Weekly:

The biggest challenge for travel agents in the vast travel marketplace is differentiating themselves from their competition, which is why branding is critical, according to Mark McMullen, executive vice president of Atlanta-based Catapult New Business.

McMullen, a former travel agency owner who is now a business consultant, told agents during a recent webinar for the Travel Institute's Advice From the Experts series that their brand is more than just a logo on a business card.

“A brand is a total customer experience,” he said. “It's how your customer perceives you. It's a collection of perceptions. It's your logo, your company's website, and it involves how you are talked about in social media and the interactions you have.”

Branding is important to agents because they typically are in environments in which many competitors are selling similar products, he said. Because consumers often don't see much difference between travel products, there's a need, and an opportunity, for agents to set themselves apart from competitors, McMullen said.

Big corporations spend millions of dollars and years building brands, but agents don't need to spend a lot, he said. What's important, he said, is to use your brand to connect to customers on an emotional level.

“Many of us buy brands because of the way we feel about them emotionally. … There's never been a time where this is more prevalent. If a customer has an emotional connection to you, they will continue to buy from you and will tell others about you.”

McMullen suggested that agents look at niches in the travel industry and specialize. Make a list of the specialties that you have a passion about and make a list of customer demographics for those specialties. Then develop a brand that resonates with that target demographic.

He said agents should ask themselves what skills and experience they have that's marketable and gives customers a reason to come to them and not another travel seller.

“Maybe you know Tauck or Abercrombie & Kent inside and out. Look at what your specialties are. Then make sure that your business cards, your website, email tagline, letters and proposals all have your brand,” he said. “Make sure it's easy to find and it's in a prominent place on your website so that customers know how you want them to think about you.”

McMullen said that professionalism in service and personal presence is key.

“If you're a travel agent and your agency is upscale, but when I walk in your door and I see posters plastered all over the windows and a cluttered office and casually dressed agents, I'll know that it doesn't fit with what a luxury agency should look like,” he said. “If there are no posters in windows and a clean, organized office with no clutter and I see agents who are professionally dressed, that tells me it's upscale.

Home-based agents who are working under their own business name but are associated with a host should clearly differentiate themselves from the host and explain to the host that their brand will be different, McMullen said.

“You can certainly put your logo on your business card and put your own specialty there. You don't want to confuse the customers with the [brand of your] host company,” he said. “You want to create your own brand. Make sure you talk to the host and tell them that you are going to use your brand. I'm sure that they will be fine with that.”