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Death of the travel salesman?

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The Internet is making visits to travel agents a thing of the past.

BUSINESS TRAVELLER

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Biz Traveller

LONDON, England (CNN) -- A good travel agent was once a valuable friend to the business traveler, finding last minute plane seats, comfortable hotels and making the frantic calls needed when plans suddenly change.

But thanks to the rise of the Internet, times are changing and High Street travel retailers appear to be packing their own bags and heading into the sunset.

Furthermore, according to experts, business travelers who fail to jump on the electronic bandwagon could be missing out on huge savings, cutting their profit margins at a time when every penny counts.

This month, British holiday firm MyTravel announced the imminent closure of 110 of its Going Places travel outlets, a move it said heralded a greater shift towards Internet-based operations.

Chief Executive Peter McHugh said the closures follow a rise from 9 percent to 16 in the amount of its U.K. turnover generated by Internet bookings.

For vacationers, electronic bookings are already the market leader. A study by RealholidayReports.comexternal link earlier this year showed that of 1,500 people surveyed, almost 52 percent using the Internet compared with 30 percent using travel agents.

"It's quite remarkable that more and more people see booking their holiday on the Internet as the way forward," a spokesman for the Web site said.

'Internet is invaluable'

Executives are also following suit. A survey last year commissioned by Travelport Corporate Solutions found that more than half of American business travelers book work-related trips online.

Bob Cowen -- a U.S. businessman who has clocked up millions of miles in the air and on the ground, inspiring him to create the Internet Travel Tipsexternal link Web site offering advice to fellow globetrotters -- says that discounts of up to 50 percent are easily available for those willing to make a few strategic clicks.

"I would say the Internet is absolutely invaluable," Cowen told CNN. "You can use it to make real 'apples-to-apples' comparisons on available deals.

"Travel brochures do not show you the bulldozer next to the hotel in the Caribbean or the dirt in the middle of the ski slope, but one of the advantages of the Internet, is you can see it all."

Dedicated travel web sites such as Expediaexternal link, Orbitzexternal link or Travelocityexternal link have cottoned on, augmenting their leisure-based services with one-stop shopping facilities aimed at offering discounts on flights, hotels and car rental to small businesses.

Says Cowen, online booking is likely to become the industry standard, inevitably driving travel agents to the brink of extinction.

"The Internet will be the end of traditional travel agents except for those serving specialist or niche clients," he said.

But while bargains can be had for the simple click of a mouse, when travel plans go awry, the Internet seems to lack the human approach needed to avert an on-the-road crisis.

Personal touch

According to the Travelport study, 33 percent of business travelers still use "offline" channels such as traditional travel agents to amend their reservations.

Says Sean Tipton of the Association of British Travel Agents, High Street retailers will continue to be a key player in organizing trips, mainly thanks to that personal touch.

"The Internet is a bit over-egged, it is not how everyone books their travel. There is a lot of loyalty out there and people who consistently use a travel agent know that they can get them a good deal and have access to deals you can't find on the Internet.

"And if things go wrong, you have someone you can take it up with. We are hearing more and more complaints from people who went on the Internet and end up where their only choice is to pursue legal action through a foreign court."

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