It’s a story we’ve been pushing for years in the form of “travel agents never went away.” As the myriad of online travel agent tools popped up, we understood. It’s the latest, greatest toy. I’m a gadget and tech junkie, I am afflicted with the must-have-the-shiny-new-thingamabob disease. So I get it. And to be fair, all these sites have made travel much more inclusive to the general traveler. Information always leads to more informed decisions, and by having open comparison shopping, the consumer wins.
We’re very happy to see the mainstream media picking up on the narrative here. Real estate guru Max Galka makes the point that the New York Times, USA Today, Time and others have all been pro-travel agent as of late in his interesting piece, “What the comeback of travel agents says about real estate”. He’s seen the trend played out so much as of late that it led him to make comparisons as to how realtors can make the same kind of rebound.
Galka’s point is that the travel agent’s expertise is what ultimately wins travelers over. “They have more connections than you; they know about special deals that you don’t; and they have the experience to help you plan your trip,” Galka writes. “And according to U.S. News, even with their 10-12 percent commission, the overall cost of going with a travel agent often comes out lower than it would if you booked it yourself.”
This is all correct information, but what Galka says here is more about travel agents starting to win the public relations battle. They’ve always had the expertise. Yes, many of the brick-and-mortar shops are shutting down, and that was happening right around the same time as OTAs were on the rise. So making the correlation that travel agents were a dying breed made sense.
To this day, I still have to remind my friends that travel agents are thriving more than ever. Thankfully, I can report after one year with TravelPulse, I find myself having to make that case to friends less and less.
The word is getting out. And the travel agent industry should be applauded for stemming this tide of irresponsible assumptions that led to a potential fatal perception. But this rebound is more about evolution. It’s about survival of the fittest, and travel agents are fit when it comes to the needs of travelers. The agents that have gone all-in on customer service and personal touch, knowing it’s their biggest weapon against faceless tech, are winning big-time.
The rise of the Internet and OTAs have resulted in an information overload. I love crowd-sourced recommendations as much as the masses seem to, but the information isn’t always reliable. Reviews are only useful when they capture the big picture of a hotel or a destination. The web is polluted with too many spiteful reviews knocking one aspect of a spot and so those star ratings can’t be trusted. Plus, we’ve seen so many examples of hotel, restaurant or destinations’ PR people flooding the review sites to bulk up the ratings, we just don’t know what to trust.
Galka makes a great point when he talks about agents being the experts in digging through the overload of information to find the truth, and thusly, the best trip.
“It seems the growing proliferation of electronic information has affected travel agents in two opposing ways. Now that we all have direct access to the airlines, we no longer need travel agents as intermediaries,” he writes. “But having an expert who knows how to dig through all that information to get you the best trip, at the best price, is more valuable than ever.”
But I believe that when you get beyond winning the PR war with the mainstream, agents – both home-based and those still hanging a shingle – are winning the grassroots war as well.
As we get more and more connected electronically, we become more and more disconnected socially. That’s where travel agents come always have the edge.
Listen, this is not a new concept. Every time a new technology or trend comes along, the old technology or trend needs to find a way to adapt. Mom and pop grocers are fighting the war against Walmart and Whole Foods on Main Street. The ones winning are focusing on customer service, the human connection that you don’t get at the big-box stores.
I cut my teeth in media in the newspaper industry, and I have watched as the high-paid executives have completely whiffed in fighting to stay relevant in the age of the Internet. I love newspapers, I’d do anything to save them and have offered up my best ideas to those who would listen. They have missed the concept of the human connection, the newspaper as a community member, and because of that, local papers are thriving while the big-city chain papers are cutting staff daily.
Travel agents are part of the hometown. They can be the trusted advisor to sift through all the information, but more importantly, they live this world. They will see you through every aspect of the trip, including rebooking you when things go wrong with flight delays or overbookings. Their commitment to you doesn’t end with a click of a mouse. A connection is created between agent and client, a relationship that leads to repeat business, referrals and … yes, travel agents flourishing.
I believe that high tide raises all ships. The tech boom has made travel agents get back to basics. The beautiful part for travel agents – and as Galka points out, for real estate agents as well – is that the more tech-connected we become, the more we will crave the personal connection.
The idea of “I got someone for that,” it becomes a commodity more than ever.
Travel agents are back because they have proven they have your back. They never went away. They simply said, “Try the new thing and then come back to the best.” And they’ve consistently worked to show why they’re the best.
By Ginger Morrissey – shown with Travelong colleagues enjoying a well-deserved trip to St. Lucia