85% of the people who cruise will do it. 90% of the people who take a packaged vacation will do it. The majority of people getting on a plane tomorrow will do it. Does this sound like numbers usually associated with a dying business? Hell no!
The demise of the travel agent has been reported for years. When I first went into the business in 1997, my financial adviser looked at me funny and did his best to talk me out of the acquisition of an agency. After all, the Internet was taking over the world. Airlines were cutting commissions and agencies were closing faster than you could keep track. He thought it was a bad idea—he was wrong. Here it is over a decade later and the agency model is still standing tall and proud—a bit battered and bruised, but stronger than ever.
So, just how does a business, who has had its obituary written, survive? We reinvent. When the airlines reduced the commissions and eventually eliminated them, we reinvented ourselves—we charged fees and we brought more services and consulting to the transaction. When suppliers went directly to the consumer, we offer unbiased advice and recommendations.
Actually, all of these “downfalls” are what has made the industry and their people stronger. We are no longer order takers and brochure translators. We are consultants. And in recent years, no longer are we acting as agents of the supplier; we are now traveler’s agents. Yes, for now, we rely on commissions from vendors, but we know that will not last forever. Then what? We will reinvent ourselves once again and armed with a loyal stable of well served clients, we will once again rise above the diversity.
Yes, we do have loyal clients. They have not all gone to the Internet. It’s true. Sure the Internet is a fantastic tool and one of the greatest advances in the travel industry. Information which used to take days or weeks to locate is now at your fingertips. It frees up time for agents to delve deeper into detailed research for clients or to travel and experience the destination first hand.
A recent survey has indicated that travel purchases are shifting from online to the more traditional. The volume is increasing but the transactions seem to be declining. According to Jeff Grau, senior analyst at eMarketer, “The fact that fewer travelers are booking online is not due to economic concerns—online travel bookers are an affluent demographic—it is caused by frustrations related to the planning and booking capabilities of online travel agencies.” Chalk one up for the home team.
So, just what is today’s agent? You’d be surprised. Just recently on the TRO Community (a private online community for professional agents), we witnessed agents reaccomodating clients due to Hurricane Gustav, another agent salvaging a client’s $6000 trip because he found it “cheaper” with a shady company that took his money, and an agent that had not been to Greece in the last two years and needed a refresher to provide the exact experience her client required. These are routine for the professional agent; yet impossible for the Internet. What the professional agent does is take the information available from many sources, (Internet, friends, colleagues, clients, personal experience, and yes even rumor and innuendo) and evaluates it all on behalf of a client in order to provide the optimum travel experience.
Today’s population possesses an insatiable desire for exploration (not to mention an incredible amount of money), and there seems to be no slowdown for the need of a qualified travel professional. There are hurdles ahead for sure, but if there has been one industry that has shown its resilience time and time again, it is that of the professional travel agent.