By: Jill Schensul, The (Bergen County, N.J.) Record for USA Today.
Sure it was fun, empowering, often money-saving in the early days, when online travel agencies like Expedia and Travelocity became a presence on the Web for price-shopping, and TripAdvisor, CruiseCritic and Hotels.com became fonts of reviews and opinions.
Now, though, your fingers are a little worn, you have a headache, you are confused about where to go and where to stay and wonder about safety and what else you don’t even know to be concerned about. You’re drowning in TMI.
And the life raft for an increasing number of travelers these days is a friendly, flesh-and-blood travel agent.
Yes, travel agents are still around, though their ranks have been significantly reduced since the Internet travel-booking sites began sucking up business nearly 20 years ago. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that there are about 70,000 full-time travel agents in the United States today, compared with a high of 124,000 in 2000.
Those who were able to survive during the DIY onslaught adapted in various ways. Many trained to become specialists in various travel products — adventure, multigenerational/group, cruise, luxury. They pared down their overhead, leaving the old Main Street storefronts for office buildings where they conducted most transactions by phone. And they began charging a fee for their services, whether you booked or not.
They kept up on industry news, on traveler preferences, they went out in the world — and they picked up their phones. A simple gesture, but one that actually became newsworthy over the Christmas holidays in 2010, when 10,000 flights were canceled and airlines, online travel agencies and other booking sites were all but useless helping passengers rebook. The stock in travel agents went up a notch or two, especially with reports of those who answered that phone at 2 a.m. and found the one available seat for a client.
Travel agents as saviors during crises of all sorts is one reason travelers began paying them attention again.
And, well, I guess you can call them saviors, here, too. Saviors from a tsunami of information.
People today want hand-picked ideas for their particular tastes and interests. So they are returning to travel agents, relying on their expertise to do the research, the comparing, the vetting, the suggesting of the right place, the right time, the right price, and all those other details the DIY planner may have either sweated for days or forgotten altogether.
“People don’t go to advisers for information anymore,” said Matthew D. Upchurch, chairman and chief executive of Virtuoso, a luxury travel network. “They go for clarity and curation; they need someone to distill the abundance of information available to them.
“What stresses people today,” he said, “isn’t the lack of information. … It’s not knowing if they are asking the right questions.”
The travel and hospitality marketing firm MMGY found that in 2015, 18% of travelers worked with an adviser, a 50% jump from the previous year.
Based on a survey of 14,000 households, the American Society of Travel Agents reports that it is currently seeing the highest numbers in three years for consumers booking through travel agents.
Much of the new business is coming from that most sought after of demographics — Millennials. MMGY reported in its 2015 “Portrait of the American Traveler” that 34% of the Millennials responding had consulted a traditional travel agent in the 12 months preceding the survey — higher than any other age group — and 39% said they planned to do so in the next two years.
Yes, the perpetually plugged-in generation, which is also the most committed to travel, is willing to give up a little control for good advice, fewer hassles and human interaction. Of course, said Kevin Wang, director of research and industry affairs for the travel agents’ organization, “they usually search online or on social media” to find a travel agent.
The organization also found that 22% of Americans making $50,000 or more booked travel through an agent in 2015, up from 14% in 2014.
“Travel agent users tend to have more travel budget,” Wang added. “They’re going to travel agents to plan for more complex trips or international trips or to places where they have not been. They realize using a professional travel agent can enhance the overall travel experience.”
While the number of travel agencies and agents is only now beginning to grow, the total cost of their bookings has increased 5% annually from 2011 to 2015, to some $341 billion, according to Phocuswright, a travel market research company. And growth is expected to hit 6% this year and next. A lot of that is because travel agents offer an “expert level” of service.
Along with the refresh of the travel agents’ image may be a refresh in their place of business, if Departure Lounge in Texas is any indication. Its founder, Keith Waldon, spent 16 years as a senior executive at the luxury travel network Virtuoso before he decided to open a brick-and-mortar travel agency on a busy downtown corner in Austin — just like you used to see in the old days.
Well, not just like. The location is “just like,” but the selling scenario is quite unlike anything most travel agent clients have ever seen, as indicated by the subtitle of the place: Austin’s Coffee/Wine Bar & Innovative Travel Agency. It invites potential travelers to “imagine an upscale interactive travel discovery zone that also happens to be one of the best coffee shops and wine bars in the Texas capital. There you’ll be transported to the world’s top destinations via outstanding organic coffees, small-batch boutique wines, artisan chocolates and cheeses, gourmet sandwiches and veggie wraps, delicious desserts, and large touchscreens that showcase the best places on earth for a future getaway.”
Waldon says that 83% of all face-to-face travel consultations result in bookings. A touch of the grape, maybe, but more likely the human.
Need an experienced travel agent to help you wade through the sea of information for your next trip? Contact Joe Hurley at Hurley World Travel – firstname.lastname@example.org