Travel agents: We do exist!

Last week, in the course of writing about why real estate agents still exist, I mentioned that travel agents — another provider of information that can more easily gathered online — had been "rendered obsolete."

Well. There are at least a few agents out there that wish to disabuse the public of that notion. And the fact that there are still more than 50,000 full-time travel agents in the United States, even after the rise of online booking of travel arrangements, is a useful case study in the role that middlemen can play even in industries that have been revolutionized by technology.

The American Society of Travel Agents has a whole fact sheet on why the internet isn't destroying the profession. They often have to "set the record straight" on why travel agent isn't a "useless job." A couple travel agencies themselves notified Wonkblog that their clients are more useful in the age of infinite information, since they help sort through it all.

"Can you really see the water from there, or did people just put pictures?" asks Kathy Gerhardt, spokesperson for Travel Leaders Group, which says it represents 40,000 agents and does $18 billion in sales annually. "We find that our clients do a lot of research on the Internet, and they come to us to help filter it."

Still, they don't dispute that the absolute number of travel agents has declined precipitously:

Gerhardt, though, says a lot of this is because “hobbyists” have left the industry. Also, she says, all the prognostications of doom have kept people from becoming travel agents – those that remain are getting up there in age, and the industry faces a wave of retirements without many coming behind them.

“Because people have talked about travel agents starting to go away, and people believed it, young people haven’t chosen it as a profession,” Gerhardt says. “So we haven’t brought a lot of new blood into the business.”

Those who are left are more often part of a consolidated agency – many have merged in recent years – in a position to bargain for special deals and perks for its clients. They tend to specialize in a particular region, rather than generally serve the entire world. And a good agent can save days of delay when something goes wrong on ever-more-crowded flights by scrambling to rebook a seat.

In other words, travel agents are still useful for people who take unusually complex trips, or who may have to visit obscure places, or make frequent changes to their travel plans. Those who are still around make their money not by helping the Griswold family get to Walley World, but multi-city or multi-country voyages for which Internet bookings can get awfully complicated. In the same sense that real estate agents have persisted despite the Internet, the more complex the transaction, the more people like to have an experienced human being to walk them through it.

Perhaps that’s why the Bureau of Labor Statistics is bullish on the future of the industry, and average annual earnings have also risen over the past decade:

(Bureau of Labor Statistics)
(Bureau of Labor Statistics)

It's also not as difficult to become a travel agent as it is to become a real estate agent. Although some states make travel agents register in a database for tracking purposes, none have licensing requirements or tests, like they do for cosmetologists. Licensing can be a barrier to entry, but it's also built-in credibility: How do you know a travel agent's not a fraud?

It's because of how the travel supply chain works: Most agents depend on accreditation by vendors themselves, like cruise lines, hotel companies  and airlines (for example, you have to pass muster with the Airlines Reporting Corp. to sell tickets on behalf of a client). Also, travel agents do have "fiduciary liability," which means you can sue for damages if things don't turn out right in a way they could have prevented.

"An agency that didn't have the ability to deliver what it said would be weeded out," says Paul Ruden, ASTA's senior vice president for legal and industry affairs. "There is kind of a self-monitoring, self-correcting mechanism that arises out of the fact that you have these relationships with these suppliers."

So go ahead, become a travel agent. Just don't complain about Expedia stealing your business.

Lydia DePillis is a reporter focusing on labor, business, and housing. She previously worked at The New Republic and the Washington City Paper. She's from Seattle.
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Dylan Matthews · August 30, 2013