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 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.”