Travelers turn back to travel agents


April 25, 2011

On New Year’s Day, James Vaughn gave his travel agent a tough assignment: Book a 10-day trip to India. Departure date: Jan. 13.

It took David Rubin of DavidTravel in Corona Del Mar, Calif., just 48 hours to book flights and hotel rooms and hire tour guides. He even called the manager of a sold-out hotel and finagled a room out of him.

But the work didn’t end once Vaughn and his husband boarded their flight from Los Angeles to Delhi. When their flight from Delhi to Agra to see the Taj Mahal was canceled, Rubin came to the rescue. “They would have been on the phone for the next several hours trying to sort out what to do,” he said.

Instead, they went sightseeing while Rubin’s local contacts did the sorting. By the time the couple returned to their hotel, their bags had been packed and loaded into a car, and a driver whisked them off to Agra.

The irony, Vaughn said, is that Rubin had initially tried to get them to drive to Agra rather than fly, but they hadn’t taken his advice. “Ultimately, he was right,” said Vaughn, a public-affairs consultant. “Seeing a camel going through a toll booth on a highway is not something you get to see while you’re flying.”

For years, it looked as though the travel agent had gone the way of the milkman. As online booking sites such as Orbitz, Expedia, Travelocity and others soared in popularity, travel agents became the butt of jokes. A scene from a “30 Rock” episode this season said it all. Desperate at the prospect of losing her writing job, Liz Lemon is invited to live in a subway tunnel with people whose occupations have become irrelevant: an American auto worker, a rock band saxophonist, the CEO of Friendster — and a travel agent.

But the travel agent has been given a reprieve. That’s because many vacations have become as hard to plan as the name of last year’s traveler-stranding Icelandic volcano was to pronounce. Natural disasters cause flight cancellations. Revolutions put tourist destinations off-limits. Airlines and rental car agencies confound with ever-increasing fees. And the Internet spews so much information that it manages to hurt consumers as much as it helps them.

Travelers are starting to need vacations from planning their vacations.

“Not only are customers confused and frustrated by new airline fees and events, but they are bombarded by social media,” said John Clifford, president of the luxury travel consultancy InternationalTravelManagement.com. “Everyone is trying to tell you where you should stay, where you should eat, what you should do.”

A study by Forrester Research found that the number of leisure travelers who enjoyed using the Web to plan and book their vacations dropped from 53 percent in 2007 to 47 percent in 2010. And in an American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) survey, 44 percent of agents said that they had more clients in 2010 than they’d had the previous year, with the strongest rebound in rail and hotel reservations.

Travelers “don’t have hours to spend on research to compare multiple flights, multiple cruises, multiple packages,” said Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst at Forrester Research. “It’s not unlike doing your taxes. Depending on who you are, what your priorities are, there are some people who will choose to do it themselves or to use a professional.”

Vaughn used to plan his own vacations, but three years ago, when his trips got more elaborate, he decided to turn to Rubin. Lately, he’s been turning to Rubin for even the easy trips. For a one-week jaunt to New York, Rubin gave him a list of off-the-beaten-path places to visit. “It’s convenient,” Vaughn said. “I could paint my house or change the oil in my car, but I don’t have the knowledge or the time to do it the best way possible.”

Looking for specialists

Credit commercial aviation with the rise of the travel agent in the 1920s. Blame online booking sites for the travel agent’s fall in the ’90s. With airfare schedules, hotels and rental-car reservations just a few clicks away, travelers dumped their agents.

In 2001, there were 37,981 travel agencies, according to ARC, a company that provides financial services to travel agencies, airlines and travel suppliers. As of March, there were 16,564. Lauri Reishus, vice president of operations for ARC, said that much of that decline is due to the consolidation of agencies.

The travel agents who have survived have had to change their modus operandi. Airlines used to pay them commissions, but not anymore. To make up for that, most agents now charge fees in addition to receiving some commissions from cruise or tour operators. The average fee agents charge for buying a plane ticket, for instance, is $36. Of the 111,000 travel agents in the United States, 28 percent are now home-based, and to compete with online travel sites, they have to be available to their clients 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And most now have specialties.

“Consumers are looking for specialists. They want a destination wedding specialist, an Africa specialist, a Puerto Rico specialist,” said Tony Gonchar, chief executive of ASTA.

What hasn’t changed, agents say, is the relationships they can build with vendors. Many travel agents can get their clients upgrades or perks, such as breakfast or a welcome cocktail, at hotels they use often. Many are also part of a buying consortium that negotiates special rates with hotels, tour operators and other vendors.

Which raises the question: Do agents steer clients to certain vendors just because they pay commissions?

“I often thought the travel agent I used was trying to sell me what was in their brochure without ever considering my needs or knowing anything about the hotel they were recommending,” said Allison Umbricht of Fairfield, Conn.

Ironically, this spurred her to become a travel agent herself. A former accountant, she started Trips of a Lifetime eight years ago. When clients turn to her to plan a vacation, she has long conversations with them about their needs, wants and expectations. Then she prices out different options with different vendors and breaks everything down for the client.

“We know that once we get a customer, we can keep them for life if we do a great job,” she said.

Ann Lombardi, a travel consultant with the Trip Chicks in Atlanta, said that she often ends up with customers who try to book their vacations on their own but then come upon some hurdle.

“Somebody pushed a button too soon and didn’t realize the airfare didn’t include several hundred dollars of taxes,” she said. “Or they didn’t monitor their flight and found out it’s changed and they can’t connect with their tour or cruise. Gone are the days when travel agents rack up commissions without doing anything. We’re consultants. We’re not just clerks.”

Michelle Gamble-Risley of Fair Oaks, Calif., books most of her vacations through an agent. On one occasion, though, she thought that she could arrange a stay at Disneyland’s Grand Californian hotel on her own. But she couldn’t get the room she wanted, and she couldn’t get dining coupons. She talked to one employee who gave her incorrect information. Frustrated, she called her agent, who happens to be a Disney specialist.

“I went to her after I screwed up, tail between my legs,” said the chief executive of a publishing company. “That’s what a good travel agent would do. If you make a mistake, they clean up your mess.”

Sometimes, however, it’s the agent who makes the mess.

A couple of years ago, Marian Thier, a leadership consultant in Boulder, Colo., had to go to Charleston, W.Va., on business. A travel agent arranged the trip for her and nine team members. Thier got her boarding pass and proceeded to the gate, where she noticed that the destination sign was for Charleston, S.C. Thinking it impossible that the travel agent had screwed up, she told an airline employee that the gate had the incorrect city posted. The gate agent chuckled. Thier glanced at her boarding pass again; sure enough, she was booked to Charleston, S.C.

The travel agency re-booked the group, covered all the change fees and bought everybody a round of drinks.

The lines blur

The travel agent’s comeback doesn’t mean that online travel booking is losing its luster. PhoCusWright, a travel-industry research firm, predicts that global online travel booking will grow 11 percent in 2011 to $284 billion and 10 percent in 2012 to $313 billion. By 2012, one-third of the world’s travel sales will be booked online.

The online travel community would argue that it has formed a symbiotic relationship with brick and mortar travel agents. Most travel agents use online tools to book their travel. Often, these are sites that the average consumer doesn’t have access to. Orbitz, for instance, has developed Orbitz for Agents, which gives more than 7,500 offline agents special access to its inventory.

“It’s no longer a case of us versus them,” said Brian Hoyt, vice president of corporate communications and government affairs at Orbitz. “The line is blurred.”

Andrew Weinstein, a spokesman for the Interactive Travel Services Association, an industry trade group that represents Expedia and other sites, said that all the online booking companies now have employees available to talk to customers by phone or instant message. Travelocity, for instance, has customer support available 24/7.

“There are no online companies that aren’t providing real world customer support,” Weinstein said. “What you’re really finding is the digitization of travel, offline or online.”

There are some travelers who will always want to do things on their own. Ellen Robin and her husband, Nelson, Germantown residents who own a software consulting company, are diehard do-it-yourself vacation planners. They’ve planned trips to Europe, Israel, Canada, Mexico and other international destinations on their own. They like being able to look at all the options, read the reviews, study the menus and decide for themselves where to go and what to do. They even manage to find apartment rentals overseas. Their tools: guidebooks (yes, they’re still around), online reviews and recommendations from friends.

“I don’t see how a travel agent would add any value,” Robin said. “Who knows best what and when we’d like to do things? We do.”

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