Travel Agents: Host Agency or No Host Agency?

A burning question for most agents is, “Should you work with a host agency or not?”. We were curious to hear what travel agents thought, so we asked Miki Taylor from Taylor & Co Travel for some insight. When she first started out as a travel agent, she was working with a host agency and now she’s switching to work independently without one. While some might disagree, Miki shares her experience and the outlook she has for her future with host agencies.

What advantages you have found about working with a host agency?

Miki: It heightened my awareness to know what I wasn’t receiving.  It enlightened me to what technology I needed to operate an efficient agency while providing a cutting edge product for my clients.  It provided me the ability to see how the scale balanced in regards to the amount of money I was paying to a host agency on one side and the value I was receiving on the other. It lit a strong desire within me to put together the tools to run an efficient state of the art agency and to brand ourselves in a way that would set us up for success in a very rewarding profession.

What were the main factors in your decision to go independent from a host agency?

Miki: When I decided to quit my accounting job and focus on expanding my travel agency and work in the business full-time I did a lot of research and that pointed to utilizing a host as the smartest choice.  I then did a lot of research for hosts and because I wanted to work in corporate travel as well as leisure I needed to find a host that could accommodate this so the research ensued again.  Many phone calls, emails, and conversations later I chose a host and signed up.

It wasn’t long after that, approximately three months in I would guess, that my frustrations began to mount.  I had received numerous requests for honeymoon quotes and when I looked into the agent tools from the host I found nothing to create a very professional customized interactive document.  I was told by some just send the supplier email, others said you can copy the information from the supplier email onto your letterhead.  None of these suggestions sat well with me as this is the day of technology, apps, easily accessible dynamic information is what my clients expected. Now where to turn?

I expected to have choices of the latest technology to choose from in order to run my business efficiently with some reviews by other agents hosted by the same company.  I expected a host agency to provide me with the latest and greatest technology covering all aspects of travel and I didn’t get any of that.  I didn’t expect to have to uncover all of this on my own.  I thought this is what I was paying my host agency for through a substantial yearly fee and a percentage of all of my commissions, but this isn’t what I received so this was a big boost in that direction.

The next gut-wrenching issue was the website that we received as a booking tool.  Very bland, very plain, it wasn’t as customizable as one was lead to believe by looking at the host’s website and in the documentation provided.  This lead to another researching mission to find a web developer to provide me a website that would support my branding desires, and the type of website my clients deserved to have from my agency without spending thousands to get the site created.  A website that would allow me to create the personality of my agency, the look & feel that I desired.  I didn’t want to be put in a box and have to choose one of a couple cookie cutters that would represent my website & ultimately my agency.  A website is our customers window into our business and I had a vision for what I wanted them to see when looking through that bay window and the “free” website booking tool we received with a host subscription wasn’t anywhere close to what my vision for this was.

The final push came when I was on a trip with some other agents and found that agents who had been in the business under the same host for a couple years were having difficulty knowing what direction to turn to put a trip together.  Their complaints were some of the same and I knew that something had to change, this was unacceptable and I knew I needed to figure out how to go it alone.

I made many friends during this trip and, one, in particular, has served as a significant influence in my life and business.  This was with Stacey Luppino [with Luppino Travel] who I have now partnered with and have tackled & conquered being an “unhosted agency” with.  When I met Stacey our frustrations were high and we just began utilizing each other to easily answer questions and solve issues hence leading us to the realization that we needed to proceed without a host.

What benefits or standards should an agent look for with a host agency?

Miki: This is different for every agent/agency. Everyone wants/expects different things out of a host.  If you are currently with a host then you will be able to easily make that bucket list of needs/wants that you are not receiving from your current host and that wish list will lead your conversations and research for a new host agency.  However, you should go into this research knowing that you may or may not find any one agency that you will be completely happy with.

If you are with a host and you aren’t happy, the chances are the next agency might not provide what you are lacking. I will not say that hosts are not necessary because for some they are exactly what they need, but before you begin to look for a host you need to be clear what you want from a host and what you feel you should be getting for that yearly fee & a percentage of your sales.

Would you recommend a host agency to a new travel agent starting out?

Miki: The old saying, “You don’t know what you don’t know” is very relevant here. I am thankful that I was with a host agency because it helped me realize a lot of eye-opening things about the industry and about what I wanted for my agency and my clients.  I would recommend going with a host that costs very little and takes very little of your commissions because the overall gist is going to be the same so lay out as little of your hard earned commissions as possible so you can test the waters for a reasonable cost.  I would also recommend testing and seeing everything they offer before buying.  I wasn’t as thorough with this then as I would be now and I wish I would have been.

What things about host agencies do you know now that you wish you had known when starting out as an agent?

Miki: I wish I would have known instead of assuming that the hosts vision of what they were offering aligned with what I expected.  I wish I would have also asked myself the following questions:

Do you truly want to own your own business? All hosts say it is our business but if it is our business shouldn’t we call all the shots?  I don’t want someone else dictating the fee I charge a corporate client for an itinerary because my host wants $5 on every itinerary if I feel it is in the best interest of my business to not charge a fee. If this is our business shouldn’t this decision be ours as well? After all, they are already receiving an annual fee as well as a percentage of our commissions in most cases and if we are correct and our business increases so will the revenue they make from us.

Do you want to build your own relationships and reputation in the industry? I don’t want my sales to make my host agencies relationships with suppliers stronger so they receive additional perks for themselves and possibly increase their revenue share from their consortia at the end of the year. I want one-on-one relationships with suppliers and I want to grow and cultivate those relationships with my BDM’s but when you are with a host, it isn’t as easy to do that because you do not hold the power of negotiation in your hand, that is all with your host. If you are with a host who is down south and you are in the northern part of the country what do you think the chances are that you will ever be able to have a face to face with the BDM for your host agency? If you go to your BDM for your area they are not going to be so quick to help you because your sales are going under their co-worker who has the region your host agency is in and that is where your bookings are logged.

How quickly & easily do you want to receive answers to questions & resolve issues? I don’t want to waste time having to go through a host support department who may or may not respond timely when there is an issue. I don’t want to reach out to a BDM who may or may not answer me because I am not the host. If I have an issue I want to be able to go straight to the top to get answers if I have to and not wait around and allow someone else’s support department dictate how I look to my customers. I want control of that.

What advice would you give to other agents about their host agency relationships and what to look for in determining if a host agency is right for them?

Miki: My advice to other agents/agencies in regards to their host relationships would be if you are not 100% happy, you don’t have to settle. All of the host agencies started exactly where we did/are and worked and cultivated their relationships and you can do the same.

My partner, Stacey Luppino and I have spent the last year researching and perfecting being an unhosted agency and will soon be launching “#XperienceTravel Advisors”, an agency for new agents and existing agents who bring their own branding but want to be an unhosted, stand out in the crowd agent, have the latest technologies, a state of the art website, and cutting edge training, while maximizing their commissions.  Through this agency we will also be conducting seminars to teach you how to be “An Unhosted Agency” so you don’t have to recreate a wheel we have already created.

We would love to hear other travel agent’s thoughts! Share in the comments below.