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Everything for no one

Exterior, interior, the photos of the castle looked beautiful. The woman describing the property suggested that high service levels were attained, and the food was superb.

There are dozens, if not hundreds, of castles and chateaus in Europe that are stunners, have faultless service and gourmet cuisine, so I was hoping to hear about the castle's key differentiating factor. Instead, the one phrase that kept coming up again and again from its representative was: "There's something for everyone here."

If so, why was my immediate reaction, "It's not for me"?

If I had to choose one phrase to banish from the lexicon of marketers and salespeople, it would be "something for everyone." Even when I took a trip last year with my wife, my mother and my two teenage sons, "something for everyone" turned me off.

And I'm fairly certain I'm not the only one who believes (rightly or wrongly) that my family and I have a fairly specific profile of likes and dislikes that puts us askew of the "everyone" norm. We're not everyone; we're very specifically us.

Last week I attended Travel Weekly's Global Travel Marketplace (GTM) in Fort Lauderdale, which is emphatically not for everyone. In this case, it's for a relatively small, elite group of agents who each, personally, sell more than $1 million in travel products every year, who are extraordinarily professional in their approach (verified by suppliers with whom they work) and who are keen to learn from the 120 suppliers who we believe will be a good match for this influential group of advisers.

(More than 700 agents applied to attend this fully hosted show; 120 were selected. And, likewise, there was a waiting list of suppliers who hoped to speak with them.)

The show consists of both one-on-one meetings and "boardrooms," where suppliers can speak to 10 agents at once. As one boardroom was clearing out, I noticed a travel agent hanging back. She approached the supplier. "I'm different from the other agents here," she said, and she clearly explained why she thought so.

That, I thought, is how one sells effectively. She was telling the supplier why, even among a select group, she was the one the supplier needed to pay extra special attention to.

In contrast, there was a talking point I heard from several suppliers that I think was meant to distinguish them but that I thought was another way of saying they had something for everyone. They'd point out that they were No. 1 (or close to it) in their category on TripAdvisor.

Life as a travel agent would certainly be simple if all one had to do was check TripAdvisor and book top-rated properties, but that suggests clients don't visit agents seeking their expert advice but rather because they're too lazy to check for themselves what TripAdvisor recommends.

(And on that topic: When I'm leaving a hotel and the person checking me out can clearly see I had been booked by a travel agent, why do they say, "If you enjoyed your stay, please let everyone know on TripAdvisor" rather than, "If you enjoyed your stay, please let the travel adviser who made the booking know"? Even taking commissions and related distribution costs into account, the travel agent channel provides the highest-margin business, and agents who hear positive feedback from a client are much more likely to put other clients in that property, as well.)

Most of the suppliers at GTM did seem keenly aware of the importance of the agent channel, and listening to them, it was clear how the pendulum has swung back in agents' favor.

Most notable to me was the reversal of a trend to push service costs (e.g., printing client documents or even luggage tags) to agents. At GTM I heard even a mass-market wholesaler offer to print brochures customized with an agency's logos for distribution to potential travelers.

Pendulums swing, but the plane of motion is not an exact back-and-forth. As demographic trends shift and, especially, as new technologies develop, the tools offered to travel agents have evolved. The range of technological solutions that suppliers were providing (or promising) agents was astounding.

I wondered whether agents whose business has risen in part because online choices have proliferated and can overwhelm consumers would themselves feel intimidated by the array of technologies suppliers had on offer.

But the questions agents asked suggested this was not the case. In fact, the demand for sophisticated technology put some suppliers on the defensive. (I heard "We're working on that" more than a few times.) One supplier told me that what he liked about the show was critical feedback from smart agents. He said he'd return to his office with a wish list in hand.

Agents' inspiration was apparent. One participant told me she had already made a booking with a supplier she had just met the day before and who was perfect for a client with whom she was working.

Which brings us full circle. The speedy booking resulted because the agent recognized that what the supplier offered was a perfect match for a specific client. She wouldn't recommend the product to everyone.

It wasn't something for everyone; it was something for precisely one.

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