Phil Nuttall, managing director of award winning travel agency The Travel Village Group, asks whether expecting travel agents to be experts on everything is asking too much of them

Are we expecting too much from our front line travel agents?

This is a question that I have been asking myself over and over again for the last 12 months.

Cutting my teeth in travel in the 1980’s with British Rail timetables, BSP airline tickets, a plethora of brochures, and the explosion of technology was one thing.

But today our retail sales people face, I believe, a much more challenging environment.

I think subconsciously I was always struggling with information overload and the weight of expectation from the customer.

Opening SavenSail, the first specialist cruise-only retailer on the high street, was an opportunity to focus on one form of travel and become real experts not just in sales but right though the business including marketing and administration.

Back then in the late 1990s, almost 20 years after entering the family travel business, there was only a handful of cruise lines and ships with a capacity of 800 to 1,200 passengers were the norm. Cabin grades were limited and a balcony was seen as extravagant.

Then it all changed. Welcome the 2000’s and Royal Caribbean’s Explorer of the seas with over 4,000 passengers. Ocean cruising was about to be revolutionised.

This gave me the courage and breathing space to chase my dream and prove that specialising in a retail environment can be successful if you put all the pieces of the jigsaw together.

Two years later and having made the move, medium and long-term goals had to be put in place and at the heart of this was making sure the team shared my passion and desire to become true experts in ocean cruise.

There could be no short cuts or simply ‘winging it’ because we would be found out. Having all our eggs in one basket on the proviso that cruise was the next big thing, was a calculated risk but it just felt right and for the sales people it provided the opportunity to focus on one product.

As they say, the best laid plans…

In my opinion Royal Caribbean changed the stereotypical ideals of ocean cruising and the moment I stepped on board Explorer of the Seas in Southampton and looked down the Royal Promenade, I realised I had made the best decision of my life.

My sales, admin, marketing and web teams suddenly only had one thing on their minds – ocean cruising. We were able to easily monitor enquiries, conversion and return on investment  because we were selling only one product.

This honeymoon period didn’t last long and towards the end of the 2000’s there was as much cruise product and diversity as there had been in retail travel in the 1980’s and 1990’s.

By the time we had reached the 2010s river cruising was just raising its head and ocean cruise was about to enter a new decade with a monumental twist that can be summed up with one word – Destination.

Our sales people had just embraced an ocean cruise revolution where there were more cabin grades and types than you could shake a stick at.

More ships were launched since the days of the Spanish Armada and new online booking portals were taking the place of skilled people at the end of a telephone.

Enter phrases such as “destination immersion” and strap lines like “way more than a cruise”, “modern luxury”, “escape completely”, “get out there” and I have to say quite bizarrely “cruise like a Norwegian”. I always much preferred Freestyle Cruising.

Front counter travel agents were told to embrace the cruise revolution, while at the same time continue to offer expert advice on all holidays and destinations across the globe.

It took more than 20 years for people to get their heads around Civitavecchia [the cruise port for Rome] and as if this wasn’t enough, we had now come full circle with river ships being launched faster than brochures can be printed and previously unthought of and unexplored rivers appearing in various media channels, including television.

As travel agents were having to learn all about the idiosyncrasies of river cruising, such as European rivers, airports, embarkation and disembarkation points including transfer times the industry just kept on innovating and diversifying.

Last year the sector realised the true potential of specialist touring and adventure holidays with the creation of trade body the Association of Touring and Adventure Specialists.

All of this is great because it is driving people into our travel agencies but in order to maximise these sales opportunities we have to engage with our sales people.

Is it possible for a good travel agent to be all things to all people or is this just something that some of us would like to believe.

In reality I suspect that good travel agents will call on their colleagues for advice and assistance but for some this will be perceived as a sign of weakness and it will be interesting to know how many agents feel this way.

I can only compare this to owners of travel agencies going to see a back surgeon for example and while there, expecting the surgeon to diagnose heart problems and tropical diseases.

I wouldn’t expect my back surgeon to diagnose a heart defect, therefore how can I expect my cruise consultant to offer expert advice on back packing in South America?

My back surgeon would refer me to a heart specialist, so why are our sales people afraid of referring to or asking opinions of our colleagues who have that expertise? And are we as owners aware of this situation in our businesses?

Creating an environment that highlights people’s skills and experiences which in turn encourages, and importantly rewards, agents for tapping into them across the business, has to be central to every company.

It’s pointless sending non sales people away on familiarisation trips if we don’t make them accessible to our sales people and our customers.

Travel agents cannot know everything, but good agents with the right infrastructure can continue to thrive and develop under strong leadership.

This isn’t too much to expect from our travel agents, isn’t it?.