Airline industry woes have dominated news headlines lately, but planners disagree about how this is changing the way they book group tickets. Raul Santa, who works for the non-profit organization Jobs for Progress National, Inc., based in Irving, Texas, says the organization no longer attempts to handle everyone’s flight arrangements for its annual conference.
“It was too much trouble. Our groups book their own airline tickets now,” Santa says. “We have a designated airline carrier for the conference and they give a five percent discount.”
The choice of preferred airline depends on the destination city, Santa says, which airline has the biggest presence in the area.
Gwen Bailey, senior administrative assistant with the Russell Corporation in Atlanta, says, “I had to go through too many hoops for what the airlines would give for a five percent discount. Now I choose the location that has hubs to get a general discount because the fare is lower, instead of trying to get the five percent discount.”
Last September, Bailey arranged for 90 people to fly to Scottsdale, Ariz. “Fifty of the 90 came directly from Atlanta to the Phoenix airport. The other 40 were spread out coming in from all over. I compared Delta’s fares, which had its hub in Atlanta, to Phoenix as opposed to America West’s, which has its hub out of Phoenix. … Southwest was offering a 10 percent discount. … But all the guidelines they had, it just wasn’t worth it.”
Bailey says she’s found it’s easier to book blocks of airline tickets through a travel agent than through the airlines’ online portals or reservation hotlines. “We have more incentive when we go through a travel agent because we’ve negotiated our kickback in advance. They will book 50 airline flights on, say, Delta and then give the 51st flight back to us free.
“I’m not letting the travel agency do everything,” Bailey continues. “I’m still finding the best price, and know what kind of price I want, and sometimes I make them work for what I need.”
Nedra Ball, who is both a planner (owner of Radiant Events) and the president and CEO of travel agency TravelGala, says it’s not difficult to find good airfares for your group, even after the bankruptcy filings, downsizing and elimination of group sales departments.
“You just have to do it early,” Ball says. “You have to do it through reservations. They assign you a group name, and then online or on the phone, you use the group name to book and it’s $50 to $75 dollars a person, and then up until the flight, you have the balance of that and you pay on it as you like.”
Ball says group airfares should be booked at least four to five months out. “The best sales start on Tuesday, beginning at about 10:30 p.m., so I usually book airfare on Tuesday night or on Wednesday morning.
“I only use my agency when I’m in a crunch for time. With the search engines travel agencies have, I know they can find things better, what the price is, view what’s available right now. If I’m four, five, six months out, I have the time to do that research.”
Ball says time crunches and confusing Web sites are driving more planners to use travel agents when booking airfares. “On your own, you can look at Delta, you can look at American West and see 13 seats. Then you go back two hours later and it’s only four. By the time you get everyone’s details, it’s all gone. But if you use a travel agent, they can reserve the block of tickets and they don’t have to pay the premium you would have to pay.”
As a planner, Ball says she usually combines booking over the phone with searching fares online, a tactic Bailey also uses. “I’ll look online and get a very inexpensive price and call the travel agent and say, ‘You gave me this price, but online it’s this price, why is that?’” Bailey says. The travel agent then secures the ticket online for the lower price without sacrificing the planner’s kickback of free airfare as long as ticket quotas are met.
Ball says destinations are often chosen with airline hubs in mind, but that price isn’t always the biggest selling point. “Frequent flyer points always take precedence over price because people want to know what they get on the back end. A discount flight may be $200 cheaper, but there are no bonus points. They prefer to pay $200 to get the points.”
Since Delta filed for bankruptcy, Ball is recommending her clients redeem their frequent flyer points on the carrier within the next nine months, but she doubts they will go out of business entirely.
“You can’t take away Delta because there’s not another option,” Ball says. “They fly places other carriers don’t fly and some people won’t fly discount carriers because of the stigma attached to it. I think the government will bail them out.
“Prices will go up. They’ll go down. But I think it’ll still look the same a year from now.”