“Don’t underestimate the power of personal contact”
The knowledge offered by local agents is still the first port of call for Scandinavians planning dream trips. Paul Stanley and Johnny Gardsäter of OTT Scandinavia explain why...
OTT is in the process of international expansion, taking online learning to travel agents across the world with the appointment of specialist country and regional marketing agencies.
Since last year, OTT has expanded its reach with the appointment of agencies in Germany, USA, Australia and France to help further engage clients and business through its network of country websites. The agencies have got to work driving clients’ social media campaigns and produce dedicated OTT blogs and newsletters for the countries and regions that they represent.
OTT has been introducing country representatives through our News pages. This week, it’s the turn of Paul Stanley (pictured right) and Johnny Gardsäter (left) at Stockholm-based Our Man in Scandinavia, working on OTT Scandinavia.
Read on to learn more about Johnny and Paul’s predictions on why the Scandinavian trend for shopping local is influencing how the region books its international travel experience
In your own words, tell us a bit about your agency…
Paul: “I moved over from the UK to Sweden in 2008 for family reasons, my wife is Swedish. I’d always worked in travel and across different companies and, in the latter stages, in representation.”
“In moving over, I felt there may be an opportunity to work for myself. I was introduced to Johnny by a colleague and we met for coffee. He was working for another agency at the time. I was starting from scratch, but he gave me some really good pointers in terms of where to start.”
“We picked up our first big contract which was Alamo Rent A Car. Johnny had worked with them previously and knew they were looking for a new general sales agent. Once you have one good customer on your books, bringing in other partners becomes easier, so Virgin Atlantic was the second company we got on board and everything progressed from there.”
“Eventually, I twisted Johnny’s arm and he came on board in 2013 as a full time employee and partner in the business. We then added other customers including Greater Miami CVB and Los Angeles Tourism and Convention Board, and have not looked back”
“Our strategy and ethos has always been to work hard, build long term partnerships and relationships and deliver results which has served us well. We've kept almost all the customers we started with and are still working with them now which is very rewarding.”
How long have you been working in the travel industry?
Paul: 35 years and counting for me..
Johnny: 30 years - I started in 1991 in the travel industry, working with travel agencies and tour operators and then slowly coming into representation of hotels, destinations and airlines. So we have a combined total of 65 years!
What trends are you seeing in your markets right now?
Johnny: “People have saved money for travel over the last 18 months. The economies in the Nordics are doing very well while many have consumed locally and travelled domestically at the same time as the value of housing has gone up significantly. Spending money on travel is actually the number one choice that most Scandinavians make when looking at their disposable income – a record high portion is usually put aside for travel. Now, it’s just sitting there waiting to be used.”
“Prior to the COVID pandemic, trends showed that people were making more, shorter, trips, whereas before they took longer trips but not as many. They’re going to different destinations as well, although without skipping the traditional destinations in any way. So I think that we're going to see nice a mix of destinations and length of travel in the future.
“Consolidations and mergers have been going on for some time. That's an international trend and Scandinavia is no different to that. Some agencies have kept the brand, they’ve kept the name and they’ve kept the staff, but they're now being bought by a bigger company.”
“Most reservations and gathering of information are being done online. For us, that’s normal procedure, because not everybody lives in a big city. In the whole region there's about 27 million people but the biggest city is Stockholm with two million people in the greater Stockholm area. The population is spread out, so an online presence has been vital for a long, long time – it’s nothing new for our region.”
“With COVID, a lot of companies have had to consolidate in terms of staff and personnel. Some have gone down to a level that they can manage, and then hopefully will be building up again. It's been tough for everybody, this last year particularly, but it has improved a little bit.”
How important is the role of the travel agents within your region?
Johnny: “Contact is still very important. It might be that people tend to make the booking online, but then a lot of people want some somebody to talk to, especially if it's a long trip, something out of the ordinary or a holiday needing additional planning.”
“Consumers can plan and book a trip on their own, sometimes only to find out that they have missed out on a lot of information. Hopefully they will ask for assistance next time.”
“Moving forward and given everything that's happened in the last 18 months, they might seem more comfortable going through an agent or an operator, having that comfort of a personal contact, someone who’s helped and assisted them with booking.
“Scandinavians want somebody to turn to locally, not necessarily because they know the local language but still a company that's registered in the region, because they feel that they are more trustworthy. We tend to buy things locally, rather than doing it from somebody that we do not know.”
How do you think technology is changing the way people book travel?
Johnny: “If you don't have an online presence you don't exist! There's no resistance any more to put your credit card details in there.
It's a little bit different from country to country. In some areas there are more tour operators, while in others its more consolidated with fewer players in the market.”
“It’s well known that the region is one of the most tech savvy and IT literate regions in the world but in other respects, while this will still progress, you cannot underestimate the ability and facility to communicate with somebody and have that personal contact if needed.
What are you most looking forward to while working with OTT?
Johnny: “I think the fun part is that I've been involved with some agency training before. Many of our clients have their own training courses that we promoted.
“I have always found this really rewarding and I think the travel agencies always appreciated when you send out training that they can do on their own. So when you finally meet them, because a lot of times we still meet them in person, they have already done the basic training so you don't have to start from square one when you're talking to them. You can go on and make them real experts and they can complete the training whenever they have the time to do it.
I think that what the market is looking for is effective training without being complicated. It's been a fantastic opportunity because from what we've seen, there's already quite a lot of agents registered on OTT in Scandinavia even prior to having a local presence.
In terms of educating the trade, obviously it's going to help them do their job better, but also really important, going forward, that it allows them to differentiate so that they can offer something new to their customers. In creating product knowledge, they're going to become experts in other areas. We're going to grow the programme on the Scandinavian site as well so I think it's a great opportunity for OTT and, and we're looking forward to helping them in that.”
Usually when people look at the Scandinavian market they see a big potential, but then it's very spread out, so it's very difficult to reach everything in a single trip. So what we see is that many companies and destinations without a dedicated local support can come to the Nordics, maybe every two years. They do a sales mission, leave it for two years, and then they come back in another two years without having any presence at all.
“It will be really beneficial to have online training rather than just ignoring the markets or as a compliment to other market activities. Perhaps the market here does not warrant all suppliers to have a 100 per cent local presence, but it is certainly big and important enough not to be ignored.”
Paul: “Across our region we have 27 million people and a lot of them are travellers. They like their holidays, they're good travellers, adapt well in foreign environments and they spend money when they're away. For destinations, we're an attractive market to get on board. Hopefully we will get some more training programmes added because with that more agents will be interested, and the whole thing will grow. We will also be communicating regularly with the market through newsletters, blogs, videos and prizes so there is a lot for the agents to look forward to with OTT in our region”
What’s best about your region – and why should travellers pay a visit?
Johnny: Two reasons – for the nature and the people. Maybe we should ask our alien here?!
Paul: “There's a lot of areas that are sparsely populated and there is so much to offer in the way of nature but then the big cities have everything that you want from a city as well in terms of culture, shopping, restaurants and nightlife.
Where would you like to visit - anywhere in the world?
Johnny: “It actually depends on the purpose of the trip. So, if I want to go skiing. I just love the US and Austria. I'm not a beach person so I don't want to stay on the beach the whole time. I want to do something else as well so I would pick any kind of destinations where you can come, combine the sun and beach and shopping and activities and that will be pretty much anywhere in the US as well. But then, not flying too far. I like Spain.
Paul: “I guess it would have to be something different. I love my sports and especially horse racing, so I think maybe to go and see the Melbourne Cup would be a bit of a dream kind of holiday, combined with visiting Australia which I have never been too. So a trip be based around an experience rather than just going to a particular place.”