Car stalled on the side of the road? AAA awaits your call.
Trying to plan a vacation? AAA wants to get you there, too.
The company widely known for its roadside assistance is hiring work-from-home travel agents to join its roughly 3,200 full-time agents nationwide, even as much of the travel industry has shifted, in the age of the Internet, to do-it-yourself online bookings.
For Erika Richter, a spokeswoman for the American Society of Travel Agents, the growing number of work-from-home travel agent positions fits with the industry changes she has observed since the rise of the Internet: from agents whose main function may be to simply book airfares or hotel rooms, to advisers who can craft rounded travel experiences.
“The Internet may have democratized the exchange of information of certain locales and allowed travelers the ability to nail down a room and do it with ease,” Richter said. “But with so many options at their fingertips, travelers now are in a kind of paralysis where they don’t know what a good deal is, or they want the validation that they’re making the right choices with their time.”
Richter said the travel-agent industry dipped slightly around the time of the recession, which some took to signal that the field would be irrevocably stunted in trying times and because of the Internet. In fact, many of those jobs simply moved out of storefront locations to “following what the rest of the world” was doing, allowing agents to work digitally and from home, she said.
“That is why some travelers believe that they went extinct,” she said, “because they’re not on every street corner anymore.”
Sean Hennessey, chief executive of Lodging Advisors, a hospitality and travel consulting firm, said AAA can leverage its years of experience and reputation among drivers and travelers alike to further grow its travel-agent sector. Even given changes to the industry over the past 10 to 15 years, AAA managed to harness its rapport among customers looking for travel advice that was more personal than that offered by online booking behemoths, Hennessey said.
That’s especially true for travelers who don’t want to hedge on online reviews when making choices about expensive vacations or business travel but who might not be looking for high-end, luxury travel services.
“Rather than simply taking the consensus view of the value or quality of a given place, [AAA] has people who go out and who make sure there’s no dust under the bed,” Hennessey said.
Plus, there is little cost in hiring employees to work from home, he added, describing the model as both a rising trend in the travel industry and a “relatively low-risk way for AAA to explore new revenue streams for the business.”
Elizabeth Carey, director of public relations for the AAA club of Western and Central New York, said social media has also boosted how customers go about planning travel. Carey said she has observed a “social media impact” as people post pictures of their trips and inspire others to plan similar getaways. (“ ‘Oh, look who’s in Alaska. This is something I didn’t think I could do!’ ” Carey said.)
And while the Internet made it easier for people to handle their own bookings, it has also presented new opportunities for agents to connect with clients from home with the flexibility to craft their own schedules.
“You want to get your kids into bed and find the itinerary for Mrs. Smith — you can go and do that,” Carey said.
Above all, Carey said, in comparison with making bookings online, travelers appreciate the perks of working with agents, especially when plans clash with the realities of life. When travelers are stranded by storms, for example, AAA agents can step in to reroute clients who may otherwise have been left to fend for themselves.
Or, as Richter put it: “The Internet doesn’t call you back.”