Frank Del Rio’s Keys to Branding Your Travel Agency Business

Travel Market Report

by James Shillinglaw

Del Rio: “We strongly believe that unless our travel agent partners are successful, we cannot succeed.”

Frank Del Rio, president and CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, speaking last week at’s annual conference and trade show in Fort Lauderdale, focused on branding—a topic he knows a thing or two about.

A 25-year veteran of the cruise industry, Del Rio helped brand Renaissance Cruises back in the 1990s, when that line initially pursued a strategy that bypassed travel agents. He learned his lesson late in the game and tried to refocus on agents, but the line went bankrupt shortly after he departed.

In 2002, however, Del Rio successfully launched the Oceania Cruises brand by focusing on delivering a great culinary experience—and aligning his company with the travel agency community. “We focused on creating an unwavering commitment and culture to serve our guests the finest cuisine at sea,” he said.

What lessons can travel agents learn from Del Rio’s branding experience? “As a travel professional, you are not just selling someone else’s brand to your customer,” Del Rio said. “You, too, are your own product and, hopefully, your own brand. Be sure your customers understand the value of not simply the tangible product you’re selling them, but also the intangible value of your expertise.”

Here are Del Rio’s top recommendations on how you can brand yourself and your travel agency business:

Differentiate yourself as an expert
Del Rio suggests that you narrow the portfolio of brands you represent so you can be an expert. Who wants to deal with an amateur with a non-informed, or worse, misinformed travel advisor? Market your expertise and your willingness to serve your customers aggressively.

Align with complementary brands
According to Del Rio, if you want your personal brand to be associated with high-end clientele, seek out luxury partners that complement your clients.

Make sure your personal brand stands for something
Del Rio said you should know what is relevant and appropriate for your brand and what isn’t—and don’t be afraid to draw a line. Which brands do you personally associate with and do those brands represent your personal brand to the same standard?

Know what you bring to the table
As a travel professional, Del Rio said, you offer a wealth of knowledge, insider resources and unmatched personal service. That’s worth a lot in today’s digital world.

Invest in your product—you
According to Del Rio, you need to take advantage of the tools available to you from the vendors that you work with, with the travel and tourism associations you partner with, and the various industry groups that are there to teach you best practices. “Stay knowledgeable, stay current and do your homework,” he said. “Never stop growing, never stop learning and make sure your personal product is the best it could possibly be.”

Have confidence and compete ferociously
“You must compete to win,” Del Rio said. “Never stop competing and you’ll never stop winning!” Just like the brands you sell, he said, you too have to be proactive and consistent in your outreach….You can’t wait for the customer to call you no more than we can simply have an 800 number and hope to fill our 24 ships.” So the question is, do your customers have good things to say about you? Are they saying it? And where and how are they saying it?

Live where your customers live
According to Del Rio, this necessarily mean where they physically live, but where they virtually live. He said people in the U.S. now spend an average of 7.5 hours every day looking at screens—computer, laptop, mobile phone and tablet. The average person spends 50 minutes on Facebook alone. Social media is no longer just a way to keep in touch, but it’s a content platform. “Think about how your personal brand is producing content,” Del Rio said. “Does it reflect your brand? Is it in a place where your customers will consume it? Are you and your target customers on the same wavelength?”

Know your value as a business partner
Del Rio said good travel partners are critical to the business success of travel suppliers. “You reach customers we could never reach in the most cost effective way I know,” he said. Del Rio said travel agents can either make or break sales and make or break a company. “Trust me. I’ve seen the break and I’ve seen the make,” he said. “Don’t let anyone ever tell you that you don’t add value, not only to your customer, but especially to the vendors you work with…We strongly believe that unless our travel agent partners are successful, we cannot succeed.”

Do something great every day
Del Rio said that if you can come home each evening and know that you’ve done something great—and it doesn’t have to be big or earth shattering but nevertheless something great—then your product, and your brand, will most certainly reflect that greatness.

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