Travel Agents Fight Back, Insisting They’re Not Useless Or Obsolete

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In the Internet age, the travel agent has become a punch line, cruelly bashed as unnecessary, useless, a dying breed. But no one (including, ahem, journalists) wants to be called obsolete, and travel agents have been fighting back and countering the insults with data and anecdotes demonstrating how valuable their services truly are.

Travel agents are often portrayed as dinosaurs from another era—mousy old ladies whose services can be replaced by a website and some Internet forums. Perhaps just a smarphone app will do the trick. But the angry backlash brought on by some recent episodes of travel agent bashing may cause critics to think twice before messing with this group presumed on its deathbed.

Over the summer, a Woman’s Day post entitled “Should I Use a Travel Agent?” drew the attention of some 1,500+ commenters—many of them living, breathing, working travel agents weighing in on how “APPALLED” they were with the “outlandish and misleading” story. Originally named “10 Things a Travel Agent Won’t Tell You,” the piece portrays travel agents largely as opportunistic, unnecessary, and not particularly knowledgeable—a group that’s motivated mainly by sneaky commissions charges on products of dubious utility (like travel insurance) rather than the service of finding clients the best vacation options at the best prices possible.

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More recently, a CareerCast.com story placed travel agents among the ranks of “useless jobs” that have been rendered pointless thanks to technology. “Planning a trip today is a do-it-yourself endeavor: you can book accommodations, transportation, discover restaurants and entertainment, and navigate your route all online,” the post states. “Thus, the traditional travel agent is no longer necessary.”

In both cases, the bashers found themselves on the receiving end of counterattacks by individual agents, travel industry insiders, and ASTA, the American Society of Travel Agents. Paul M. Ruden, ASTA senior vice president, declared the CareerCast story “as insulting as it is inaccurate,” and wrote that the vast majority of agents who have embraced technology are thriving:

Basic research would have shown that as of year-end 2012, there were about 8,000 U.S. travel agency firms in business employing 105,000 people. In 143 million transactions, those agencies sold $86 billion worth of air travel (64 percent of the market). While online agents account for a lot of that business, so-called traditional agents actually sell about half of it, in addition to the vast majority of the $15 billion worth of cruises (64 percent) and $9 billion in tour packages (66 percent). Those are big numbers. Travel agents help to move people around the country and around the world, and in the process keep our economy moving. Useless? Not hardly.

The Woman’s Day article “once again demonstrates the often shocking lack of knowledge by consumer magazines and the writers they hire about the travel agency trade,” a Travel Pulse editorial stated. “You could write a book about what’s wrong with the Woman’s Day article on travel agents,” Travel Weekly, another industry publication, wrote.

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Christine Duffy, president of CLIA (Cruise Lines International Association), felt compelled to respond to the idea that a travel agent can easily be replaced by a website:

The internet won’t call a customer back and won’t wait on hold with an airline or hotel so you don’t have to, or adjust plans due to unexpected developments or act as your “mission control” for all facets of your cruise vacation – before, during and after.

Woman’s Day has defended its story on the grounds that the purpose was “to inform consumers on how they can get the best prices on travel,” but the editors basically admitted some mistakes were made, and some changes to the piece were in order. “Thank you to all the hard-working travel agents who provided feedback on this story,” reads a note at the bottom of the piece. “We’ve thoroughly reviewed this article and have removed point 9 (about airline commission) based on information you provided. We thank you again for sharing your expertise and doing the great work that you do.” Accordingly, the original headline (“10 Things …”) had to go.

Woman’s Day and CareerCast are hardly alone in their roles as being both the critics and punching bags of travel agents. In 2011, none other than President Barack Obama strongly implied travel agents were obsolete in a town hall meeting in Illinois. “When was the last time somebody went to a bank teller instead of using the ATM, or used a travel agent instead of just going online?” Obama said. “A lot of jobs that used to be out there requiring people now have become automated.”

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It’ll come as no surprise that ASTA had something to say in response. “Travel agents work as personal advisors to provide their clients with the best travel experience before during and after their trip,” ASTA CEO Tony Gonchar wrote in a letter to the White House. “Thanks to their in-depth knowledge, experience and industry connections, travel agents are able not only to save their clients money, but their most valuable possession—their time.”

19 comments
HT
HT

It is strange that corporations insist on using travel agents. Of the small number of calls received by travel agents, 99% of even those are by folks who don't have a choice, due to some stupid bureaucratic corporate policy. The service rendered to these folks is typically much worse than calling an agent at the airline directly. They charge a service fee in addition to what is charged by the airline, so their rates are always higher. They do not provide any additional flexibility whatsoever.


The other 1% of folks using the agency out of choice are typically rendered much better service.

GreggL
GreggL

After booking my honeymoon recently with a travel agent, I learned one thing the internet won't do.  The internet won't email me on a Saturday morning letting me know their is a new special my booking qualifies for, it has been applied, and we just saved $400.  That happened about two months ago and after that I will never book another vacation without the help and advice of my travel agent.

MeetDonnaW
MeetDonnaW

Even Journalists and Writers have undergone the same challenge.... 

Travel Consultants listen and take action for their clients (consumers) especially when a consumer cannot get a hold of the famous travel brands they reserved with.  And, complaints against famous brands happen everyday now.  

They also offer online solutions for their clients too.  Travel Consultants have re-invented solutions. 

Sheribh
Sheribh

Modern, independent and specialized agents or agencies are no more obsolete than cruises. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the appeal of taking a cruise is that it very much fills the void left when the closure of old school travel agencies. Like a travel agency booking - you have hotel, food and itinerary all taken care of with little to no effort on your part and you pay in a single lump sum, making traveling easy and accessible.   

Travel agents provide a similar service but more accessible than simply ports of call. A modern travel agent can find specialized tours such as biking through Canada or visiting the polar bears in Churchill Manitoba or even a yoga retreat. They know little gems of wisdom and, more importantly, people on the ground that can make or break a specialized trip. 

Having recently completed a complex trip through 3 cities, I think we would have benefited greatly from the use of a travel agent who would have known not to book us in downtown where restaurants closed at 7 when the daily business crowd has gone home to the suburbs. The next time I undertake such a complex trip, I will definitely use the services of a specialized travel agent.

kirsteng117
kirsteng117

I'm 29 years old and a travel agent/tour operator for a small adventure travel company in Seattle.  I handle just the business to South America (excluding the Galapagos) and gross well over $1 million in sales each year.  It's 8:30 PM and I'm still at the office as I am try to simultaneously get a luggage shipment extracted from customs in Lima, pull off a last minute anniversary trip to Peru departing tomorrow, change hotels for travelers who just now decided they want to upgrade on a trip at the end of the month and work on three separate custom itineraries for groups who tried to plan their own holiday trips in Patagonia in late December but realized that they just can't do it themselves.  The internet isn't going to tell you that the legal connection you want to book via Buenos Aires is actually impossible due to Aerolineas' loathsome on-time performance record or that the deluxe lodge at the 'edge of Torres del Paine National Park' is actually still a 2 our drive to the trailheads because of the distance to access actual park entrances. We're busy, we're valuable and any traveler who has used a good travel agent knows it; it's exemplified when past clients book with us again and again and again.

TrishGastineau
TrishGastineau

As a Professional Travel Agent Advisor who has been in the industry for 20+ year, I can tell you that I'm anything but a "Traditional" Travel Agent! 

I'm devoted to my clients and my many travel industry partners, as well as Continuing Education.  There is ALWAYS something new coming down the pike...be it geo-political changes around the world, changes to a county's entry requirements, constantly upgraded and changed hotels, cruise ships and tour itineraries - and let's not even start talking about technology!

I LOVE my job -   I get to help make a difference in peoples lives.  It's not always been easy, (sometimes it's been downright scary like after 9-11) but I'd do it all again in a split second! 

LuxTravel
LuxTravel

@rafat A bogus @skift Google survey is not 90% of Americans. Report facts not your false assertions based on shoddy surveys. Laughable!

LuxTravel
LuxTravel

@rafat @skift what you fail to realize is travel is about people & relationships, not booking engines. Smart savvy travelers know this.

rafat
rafat

@LuxTravel @skift revel in your own ignorance. what next, internet doesn't exist, all bogus??

LuxTravel
LuxTravel

@rafat Travel Advisors already have and are constantly morphing to meet needs of today's tech savvy traveler. I'd love to show you the ways.

rafat
rafat

@LuxTravel but all you, ASTA & other PR orgs do is whitewash, gloss and bury sand in head. admit reality & define new realities.

rafat
rafat

@LuxTravel if you want to have a decent conversation about how travel agents can morph, pivot & survive, we can.

LuxTravel
LuxTravel

@rafat @skift the Internet has enhanced Travel Advisors not hampered us. Your Google survey claims are bogus. Try actual facts vs hype.