Client Trust is Key to Med Travel Success for Agents
Travel Market Report March 2012
Conference Speaker: Client Trust is Key to Med Travel Success for Agents
by Maria Lenhart
March 26, 2012
When it comes to establishing a niche in medical tourism, a Hawaii-based travel agent has found that it is all a matter of trust.
“Trust and relationships are even more important in medical travel than they are in general travel,” said Kiana Bright, vice president of Thailand Medical Travel and Tourism (TMTT).
Bright, who co-founded TMTT in 2008 as a division of International Travel Services in Lihue, Kauai, has built a growing business as a liaison between travelers and medical facilities in Thailand. TMTT also partners with travel agents who need arrangements for their own clients traveling to Thailand for medical reasons. (See story, “Agents Set Up Thailand-Focused Medical Travel Division,” Travel Market Report, Nov. 22, 2010)
Travel Market Report talked with Bright, a featured speaker at the Well-Being and Medical Travel Conference, June 20-21, about how agents can tap into this growing field.
What will be some highlights in your presentation at the Well Being and Medical Travel Conference?
Bright: I will talk about the advantages travel agents have in specializing in medical tourism in comparison to those who do not have the travel background. A lot of people are getting into the business as medical travel facilitators, but they have challenges because they don’t have experience in travel.
I’ll also go over how to establish business with international travel providers, including the challenges and how to overcome them.
I will highlight the process of medical tourism, from start to finish. What happens before the traveler leaves the country, what needs to be taken into consideration before and after the surgery, what happens when they come back.
I will also talk about the importance of referral business and how to get it.
What are some misconceptions that travel agents have about medical tourism?
Bright: One of the biggest is that medical tourism is all about plastic surgery. They don’t realize how wide it is. People travel for a huge variety of medical reasons.
Are agents sometimes intimidated by medical tourism?
Bright: Yes, agents often think that medical tourism is difficult to get into or that they need to know a lot about medicine or medical treatments. But it’s a lot like selling a car – you don’t need to know how to make a car in order to sell it. You just need to know how it functions. In medical tourism, you’re giving advice on travel, not medicine.
Agents also think there is a high degree of risk involved. The fact is that you’re not giving medical advice, so you’re not at risk.
How has Thailand Medical Travel and Tourism evolved since you started it in 2008?
Bright: I do leisure travel as well as medical travel, but 85% of my business is now medical travel.
We are seeing increasing demand, especially in areas such as alternative medicine and stem cell medicine. Thailand does a good job in these areas.
Travelers are coming not only from the U.S. but from countries such as the Maldives, Australia and Japan.
Thailand is also drawing a lot of people from the U.S. seeking treatment for Hepatitis C through peptide therapy. This is a very fast-growing area.
We also work with a clinic in Tijuana, Mexico, which is affiliated with our provider in Thailand. It’s an alternative for people seeking treatment for Hepatitis C who don’t want to go all the way to Thailand.
Do you recommend that agents work with medical travel facilitators?
Bright: Medical travel facilitators are very good to partner with. Most don’t want to get involved with the actual travel arrangements and want a travel agent partner. And the facilitator can do things the agent may not want to do. Many agents don’t want to get too involved in the medical side of the trip.
Are medical travelers able to enjoy the destination? How do you determine what options might work for them?
Bright: It very much depends on what type of surgery they are having. If it doesn’t allow them to move around much, we would arrange something like a dinner cruise rather than something with a lot of walking.
You need to keep in mind that the tour program needs to be flexible. You need to be able to cancel things or change the timing in case they don’t feel up to it.
What are some travel considerations that are important to the medical traveler’s companions?
Bright: Statistically, 75% of medical travelers bring a companion. Most of our patients bring one. We often arrange activities for the companion. Sometimes the companion will take a half-day tour or get involved in another tourism activity.
An important consideration is that the hotel accommodations be in a location close to the medical facility and to services. Most of the time, the companion is involved with helping the patient recover after the surgery. So the hotel location has to be very convenient.
How do you go about building your clientele for medical tourism?
Bright: When it comes to finding clients for medical travel, the key word is trust. Referrals really figure into this. When people are referred to you, they come to you with trust.
It’s important to start with people who already know and work with you. Friends and family and existing clients. Serve them well and then your circle will expand.
Do you promote your medical tourism business in your local community?
Bright: Being based in Hawaii has been very beneficial to us as so many people here are from Asian backgrounds and are comfortable with the idea of traveling to Asia for medical treatment. And geographically, we are close to Asia. It’s a close-knit community where people talk to each other about their experiences.
When I first came here, a client asked me to do a presentation at a casual party in her home. I got to meet a lot of potential clients. It’s establishing those personal relationships that really makes this work.