In this age of internet and social media, the travel agent is said to be an endangered species. Most statistics indeed seem to confirm a lasting trend:
- In Spain, there were 6,075 travel agencies in 2012. This represents a loss of one third compared to just five years earlier, when there were 9,127 travel agencies in 2007.
- If one looks at the ratio of travel agency per number of citizens, the situation is just as alarming. In Spain, there is now 1.29 travel agency (point of sale) per 10,000 citizens, while this ratio is down to 1.2 in Germany and 0.8 in France!
- In Canada, it is estimated that more than half of all travel agencies vanished between 1996 and 2006.
A CHANGING ROLE
Truth be told, we no longer go to travel agents for information alone, as there are countless websites, social platforms such as Youtube and Pinterest for aspirational videos and photos, not to mention user review sites like Yelp and Tripadvisor to gather a better opinion about a destination and specific hotels, restaurants or attractions. In this context, the travel agent role has evolved into that of a consultant, helping with the decision process and adding value along the way. Here are three ways this can take place:
1. SAVE TIME
It may sound ironic, but with all the technology available at our finger tips, including countless mobile applications now providing all sorts of detailed information from things to do, to weather and local maps, one might think we can sort out a trip in no time. Yet, Expedia Media Solutions recently found that the average packaged-travel purchase takes place after 38 visits to various websites, from the DMO (destination marketing organization, at country, regional or city levels), to OTA (online travel agencies, i.e. Expedia, Booking.com), and various hotel sites.
While many may find the process fun, there is a growing crowd not interested in wasting time visiting close to 40 sites before deciding upon an upcoming trip. A savvy travel agent usually knows where to look and has access to central reservation systems allowing to tap into latest availabilities and promotional rates, and will come back to a customer with 3-4 best options to choose from. Time is money, as the saying goes, so time saved here can be better used dreaming of the next trip, or buying sunscreen!
2. PEACE OF MIND
The US Government is shutting down, so what happens to those reservations for 3 nights in a National Park? You are headed for France and you hear the national train company (SNCF) is about to start a massive strike, halting all trains for an undefinite period of time? You arrive at your destination and find out the hotel you were supposed to stay at is either overbooked or, worse, is still under construction with half the rooms unavailable? From Icelandic volcanoes to airlines going bankrupt leaving passengers stranded, horror stories abound in the tourism world, even though we prefer to forget about them. A travel agent can become a lifeline in such cases.
But things don't have to be catastrophic in order to get peace of mind from a travel agent. In fact, while most simple transactions don't require a travel agent nowadays, i.e. a local reservation with a known airline, car rental company or accommodation, it's when the itinerary becomes more complex that things can get complicated. If you wish to travel three weeks in South Africa or in Asia, with different types of accommodations, a rail journey or a local cruise experience, then trying to figure it all out alone is a much more daunting task. Here again, a good travel agent will provide you with recommendations, ensuring peace of mind through expertise you perhaps don't have.
3. PERSONALIZED ADVICE
More importantly, a good travel agent is one that understands your needs and wants, and that can go as far as to anticipate what you'd want from an upcoming travel experience. Last December, I dealt with my travel agent for a complex request: a multi-generation vacation in the Carribbean, during Christmas time. We wanted to have an affordable yet memorable experience, with 13 people travelling, adults and kids ranging from 3 to 76 years old.
My agent filtered the first selection, suggesting a chosen few resorts from which we did our validation via Tripadvisor. From our discussions, she understood what we were looking after, so she made room arrangements ensuring we paid less, were grouped in the same area of the hotel and even logged in a call with the director of sales (a friend of hers) to get us an upgrade once on the premises. We even got our seats confirmed on the flight at no additional cost... all little things that add up and contribute to delivering a better overall travel experience.
RELATIONSHIP IS KEY
I find the travel agent role has changed much like the way a car salesman has as well. We tend to gather all information regarding our next car online, read reviews and discuss with friends and relatives before we ever visit any car dealership. We enter most showrooms much more educated than ever before. Thus, we expect the salesman to be able to give us added value in the discussion, or perhaps assist us with peripheral aspects of warranty or financing, for example. Nobody wants to hear the salesguy tell us "boy, have I got a model for you!"
Likewise, almost nobody enters a travel agency with no clue of their next destination. We certainly expect the travel agent to be savvy about up and coming travel trends, and to perhaps give us some cues following a recent familiarization trip in a given destination, but the influence level certainly isn't what it once was. Nevertheless, travel agents in 2013 ought to have a social media presence where they can share their recent discoveries, client testimonials and perhaps promotional offers that can appeal to their ongoing clientele. Loyalty marketing and a strong database management strategy are vital for travel agents, as acquisition will always prove much harder than retention and increasing the share-of-wallet with ongoing clientele.
One thing is for sure: agents who add value in the travel purchase process are those who will maintain and thrive with their business. Those who don't evolve and stick to their old ways of doing business are doomed for a slow, yet inevitable downward spiral...