The keynote panel on travel industry trade day at the New York Times Travel Show in Manhattan this past weekend was made up of travel agents and their representatives, and they had one plea to the public: We haven’t gone away!
Apparently a good percentage of the public thinks travel agents have gone the way of the dinosaurs or at least print newsweeklies, on the seriously endangered list.
Stark statistics were presented: while use of traditional travel agents for booking trips is up 18 percent over the past three years, only 13 percent of the public uses them to book leisure trips, and only 16 percent use them on the business side.
The Internet, of course, is the culprit, encroaching more and more on travel agent territory since the late 1990s. Then there was the time a decade or so ago when airlines stopped paying commissions to travel agents for booking flights and agents for the first time had to start charging customers for such routine services. (That has since changed somewhat.)
Only cruise lines have remained steadfastly loyal to travel agents throughout, paying commissions and, in some cases, taking bookings only through agents.
But now travel agents are regrouping.
Some are moving into high-end concierge services, in which they plan entire luxury vacations for affluent clients. And of course there are many successful online travel agencies as well.
Others point to surveys that show that while 85 percent of travelers start their trip planning online, 30 percent feel overwhelmed by all the information on the Internet, and by the actual booking of the trip.
And this is where travel agents — especially of the brick-and-mortar type — believe they can make a comeback.
“There’s no substitute for a knowledgeable travel counselor,” keynote speaker Yana Gutierrez of American Express Travel told the assembled.
But, she said, successful travel agents have to offer “exceptional value as part of every consumer transaction.” This doesn’t necessarily mean the cheapest price — the Internet may well provide that — but it does mean that agents need to offer their customers an “exceptional travel experience.”
Travelers today, Gutierrez said, are more willing to try new things on a trip than they were even five years ago. In American Express surveys, she noted, “88 percent of respondents put travel #1 on their bucket lists.”
Agents, she continued, should develop a knowledge of specialty travel to help customers develop tailored, more personalized trips. And, she added, “they expect first-class service, convenience, security, and seamless and memorable experiences.” (The word “experiences” cropped up a lot.)
It sounds like a tall order, and if I were a travel agent I might be asking, “How can I guarantee seamless and memorable travel experience for all my customers?”
Good question. As one of the panelists pointed out, it may be enough that your travel agent can bail you out by re-booking your flight if bad weather cancels your regular one, perhaps saving you from having to sleep in the airport for hours or days. Or, as once happened to me, my helpful travel agent convinced a surly airline agent to put me on my flight to China after the airline had listed my name on the wrong manifest.
Now that’s value.
But here’s the problem: Like millions of other Americans — including frequent traveling baby boomers like myself — I haven’t booked through a traditional travel agent (as opposed to online agencies) in years.
What can you do to lure me back? Answer that question, and you’ll be another endangered species saved.
Answer to This Week’s Travel Quiz:
What percentage of the U.S. population has ever taken a cruise?
A. 33 percent
B. 12 percent
C. 40 percent
D. 21 percent
The answer is D, 21 percent.