- Travel agents can make getting out of bad situations easier
- The number of travel agents has dropped with the rise of online travel sites
- Still, agents are highly specialized and often focus on more complicated trips
- Some travel agencies are working to attract younger travelers
By the time Costa Concordia cruise passenger Arthur Beach got to Rome, he knew how he would get home to Albuquerque.
Beach and his wife, Alex, had flown to Barcelona to celebrate Alex's birthday and boarded the Concordia there. They had been on the ship five days when disaster struck.
It took the rest of the night and most of the next day for the Beaches to escape the sinking cruise ship and get to shore, leave the island to get to the Italian mainland, board a bus to get to an airport hotel outside Rome and head into Rome to obtain temporary passports at the U.S. Embassy before they could leave.
Back at the hotel, Beach didn't call his airline. Instead, he called his son to contact his travel agent. Within a few hours, Jackie Berube, an agent with All World Travel in Albuquerque, New Mexico, had booked him on an evening flight to Barcelona and a room at a hotel near the Barcelona airport. Berube, whose agency is a member of the Virtuoso network of travel agencies, moved their return flight to depart the next day.
"I thought Jackie did very well," said Beach, 66, who has booked travel with Berube for 20 years. "She had two to four hours from the time she was notified that we would like to get out of Rome, and she had us out."
Like many travelers, Beach usually books his own flights when he's taking a simple business trip within the United States. But he turns to his travel agent when his plans get more complicated or he's leaving the country or when there's trouble.
"She has more information and easier access to it and knows more about it than I do," Beach said.
Not your grandmother's travel agent
In an age where travelers of all ages turn to the Internet to book flight and hotel reservations, modern travel agents are offering expert advice on cruises and tour packages to far-flung locales, advice on the best a particular city has to offer, exclusive perks, hidden discount prices and the security of an adviser in case of inconvenience or disaster.
Successful agents know that their customers have access to lots of travel information -- often too much -- and want time-saving guidance, exclusivity and security in a complicated world. Whether they can convince younger Americans who may not have ever worked with a travel agent of that added value -- and ensure their industry's survival -- remains to be seen.
It's true that there are fewer U.S. travel agents today: 105,910 in 2010 versus 111,000 in 2006, according to the American Society of Travel Agents. And there are fewer agencies: 14,800 agencies in 2010, compared with 18,850 in 2006, according to ASTA.
While some agencies went out of business after the airlines eliminated commissions and consumers began to shop online, agencies have also consolidated and started offering more service than the Internet can provide. Many have shifted to home offices, doing most of their business over e-mail and the telephone.
To serve a generation that may have never dealt with a human being while making travel plans, travel companies are hiring young people to market to their own generation. American Express Travel launched a pilot apprentice program to teach the travel business to young people with strong customer service skills who were interested in travel but had no business experience. In the first class of 25 apprentices, 90% were promoted to full-time travel agents after a year, says Ellen Bettridge, vice president of the American Express U.S. Retail Travel Network.
American Express Travel, which allows customers to book online, via telephone or in-person, launched the NextPedition program last fall to attract young people, Bettridge says. People take an online survey to assess their travel interests and are offered mystery travel packages according to their personality type. A key element: Purchasing the trip requires a conversation with a human being, allowing the company to make the case for human interaction with its agents.
Yet as the numbers show, many consumers still aren't convinced. Singer-songwriter Marilyn Carino, who travels between homes in Atlanta and Brooklyn and often books touring gigs in Canada and Europe, prefers the simplicity of booking online, even for complex leisure travel.
"Booking travel online is way preferable to using an agent. You don't have to say 'What?' or 'Can you spell that?' to your computer screen,' " Carino said. "Enter your name, info, dates, just the facts, click OK, done."
Money still matters
When the economy tanks, the travel industry gets hit especially hard. The U.S. travel market declined 15% in 2009, according to PhoCusWright, a travel market research firm. Travel agencies were hit even harder, declining 21% because their bottom line is affected by corporate travel and complicated leisure travel, which includes international travel, cruises and tour packages. But they also recovered the fastest in 2010: up 15% while the total market gained 11%, says Douglas Quinby, PhoCusWright's senior director of research and author of an upcoming study of travel agents.
Where travel agents once relied heavily on a percentage of the price of an airline ticket, now they often charge flat fees for airline ticket purchases or creating a custom trip package. They still receive commissions from tour operators and cruise lines for sales, and may receive airline commissions if an airline wants to promote a particular route or if the agent purchases a significant number of one airline's products, says Lauri Reishus, vice president of operations at ARC, an airline-owned company that provides financial services to the travel industry.
Travel agents may charge a flat $35 fee to purchase an airline ticket or a $250 "plan to go" fee to organize a more complex travel package. (Some fees may apply to the cost of a trip.) Expert agents can charge an hourly rate for specialized services, and some even charge an annual retainer for customers who want an agent at their disposal.
"Other people will spend $35 and consider it a bargain to not only get the best price but to have someone there to help me when something happens," says Matthew Upchurch, chief executive officer of Virtuoso, a luxury network of affiliated travel agencies.
It's a relationship
Modern travel advisers want you to think of them like a financial adviser or lawyer, with whom you have a long-term relationship, says Upchurch. That person understands what you like from what you say about your preferences, from what you say you liked on previous trips and from the questions they ask that you might not have thought of.
"One of the biggest values of a good travel adviser is understanding what's important to you and being able to provide options you hadn't thought of," Upchurch said.
For many agents, specialization is the name of the game. Travel agencies (not including Expedia, Priceline and other online travel agencies) make up one-third of the U.S. travel market but grab a larger share of cruise and tour operator packages (about two-thirds) and corporate travel (more than three-quarters), says PhoCusWright's Quinby.
They may specialize in cruises, African safaris, Japanese trips, adventure travel or corporate travel.
"It's not just that a travel agent is a cruise specialist," Quinby said. "They're going to be a certified Alaska cruise specialist or a specialist for the Princess Cruise line. They take tons of destination and product training."
The average traveler is spending hours online booking their travel, perhaps time worth more than the dollars saved by not using an agent.
"The average traveler is spending something like ... nine web sessions and visiting 21 websites in order to book their travel," said Mark Orwoll, an editor of Travel + Leisure magazine. "Travelers are really looking for some advice, somebody who can answer questions for them, somebody who has experience in traveling, and they can't always get that online."
Travelers spending a lot of money on a complicated trip want to get it right, says Tony Gonchar, chief executive officer of the American Society of Travel Agents. "If I recommend Jordan, I've known your experience historically and talked post-trip about how you enjoyed your visit. I've assessed your risk tolerance."
While travel agents get a lot of buzz when they remove travelers from the mess of a cruise ship disaster or from the path of an erupting Icelandic volcano, they also can address the more ordinary disruptions of missed flights and lost luggage.
Before you go
Before you book, Gonchar recommends choosing an agent from ASTA membership at travelsense.org. If your agent is an ASTA member, he promises his association's code of ethics can be enforced up to and including expulsion.
"You have recourse if you do not have the ability to resolve your issue with a travel agent," he said. "It's like a Good Housekeeping seal of approval."