February 01, 1998
Meetings & Conventions: Planner's Portfolio February 1998 Current Issue
February 1998 Back to BasicsPLANNER'S PORTFOLIO:

Back to Basics


Selecting a Travel Agency

A qualified partner will do more than just get your people to the meeting

What would a meeting be if you couldn't get your attendees to the destination in the first place? Unfortunately, all the regulations, routes, fare hikes, passport problems and visas can complicate getting from point A to point B. One of the most important (and least appreciated) suppliers in meetings management is the travel agency. Choosing the right one can make the difference between planning a dream event and planning a nightmare.

In the past few years travel agencies have begun to offer many additional menu options, like "meeting planning services" and "destination services," blurring the line between travel agencies, destination management companies and touring companies. Still, choosing a competent travel professional is vital because making group travel arrangements is a full-time job in itself, and most planners already wear a dozen hats.

But how do you choose a credible agent? The following tips should help narrow the field.

Start the selection process early. The availability and costs of transportation can influence site selection. A good travel agent will be able to provide a cost analysis of several destinations and lift analysis of the carriers. A company's ability to supply you with this information is a sign of a competent travel agency that is serious about the meetings industry. Agencies can also help with setting up transportation for site inspections and negotiating with carriers for meeting discounts.

Determine what services you really need. Does your small meeting need only reservations and ticketing for 10 people, or do you have a citywide convention requiring an official carrier to be named, airport reception desk manned, discounted fares negotiated, shuttle service scheduled, specialized ground transportation arranged and customized tours coordinated? Incorporate all of your meeting's specifications into a transportation request for proposal.

Look close to home.Your organization may have an internal unit or a preferred travel agency to handle corporate travel. Start here. This company may provide some or all services required for your meeting and can introduce you to other potential suppliers.

Consider splitting the job. Most agencies can handle the basics of reservations and ticketing, but some may not have the clout or contacts at the destination to handle ground operations and will subcontract for these services. If you go directly to a destination management company or shuttle bus company, you may get the same or better service while saving dollars and middleman headaches.

Get several bids. Remember that "travel agent" is a generic term. Look for those who are members of the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA). Employees with the designations Certified Travel Associate (CTA) or Certified Travel Counselor (CTC) have completed certification programs and should conduct business with a high level of professionalism. If your meeting will be held overseas, choose agents who have completed a destination specialist program for that region of the world.

Remember, not all agents are equally competent in handling meetings travel. Some equate it with "group travel" and don't know the differences. Look for agents with memberships in industry organizations like Meeting Professionals International, the American Society of Association Executives or the Professional Convention Management Association, or those whose meetings agents are Certified Meeting Professionals.

Check their work. Ask for a list of meetings the company has handled and what services they provided for each. Pay particular attention to the number of attendees, destinations and points of departure, and special amenities that were provided to the attendees and the meeting sponsor. Customized ticket holders and bag tags, coupons for inflight services, destination brochures for attendees and special cargo rates are services that should not be overlooked. Also determine if the services were supplied by in-house staff or subcontracted. Then check references thoroughly.

Keep the lines of communication open. Once you've made your selection, include the travel company in the planning of the meeting from the beginning. Get advice on destinations, carriers, etc., during site selection. Ask for photographs, brochures, posters or canned copy for your promotional campaign. Consult the travel company (or companies) during program development. If most flights arrive midday, for instance, schedule registration and opening sessions accordingly.

Be sure to require periodic reports of usage, costs and savings. After all, you should be able to treat the agency as your partner, but you still need to closely monitor the travel portion of the meeting.

Martha Jo Dendinger, CMP, is an independent meeting planner in Atlanta.

Back to Current Issue index
M&C Home Page
Current Issue | Events Calendar | Newsline | Incentive News | Meetings Market Report
Editorial Libraries | CVB Links | Reader Survey | Hot Dates | Contact M&C