Why Travel Agents Are Back From The Dead (And Why You Should Care)

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Travel agents were once the poster children for that Old Economy horror movie Things The Internet Will Destroy. From a high of 34,000 in the mid-1990s, the ranks of agencies has been sliced by more than half, to roughly 15,000 today. But recent indications that the business is on an upswing—agencies, which posted their second straight year of growth in 2011, now account for about a third of the $284 billion U.S. travel market—point out the need for a more uplifting sequel. You might call it Things a World of  Endless Options Makes You Appreciate. (Or maybe something a little catchier.) By any name, though, this particular industry’s news may augur broader business and societal trends.

There are, to be sure, many reasons for the rebound in agency business. An improving economy, for one. Higher consumer spending, for another. And, of course, there’s the ongoing and growing desire for customized experiences by people who can afford it—think: the 1%. But without doubt, a significant factor behind the resurgence in demand for agents is the very value proposition the web brings to so many commercial experiences: a surfeit of choice. As numerous academic studies and popular books have explained in recent years, abundant choice at the same time attracts and overwhelms the average person.

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We think we want unlimited choice, but what we really want is the illusion of choice and a trusted screener to help us choose.

Which explains why many travelers, 1%ers or otherwise, are once again seeking the help of professionals, who are often (and not surprisingly) better than the average consumer at finding the cheapest travel prices, locating the best hotel deals and sizing up the most interesting activities. Why wouldn’t they be? They spend all day doing just that. As Steve Peterson, a travel expert of IBM‘s Institute for Business Value, told The New York Times, “It’s come to a point that it’s too much information to be confident that they have the ability to book the lowest fare. Consumers are hungry for that one-and-done shopping experience.”

No one is predicting that travel agents will rise up to once again dominate the travel business. But the more complex the world becomes—a complexity often created by the Internet—the more likely it is that an increasing number of consumers in all manner of sectors will seek more personal retail or commercial experiences. Not just because they can afford to, but because the added costs (if there even if are any) are worth the “companionship” of the trusted-screener experience. For all the benefits and opportunities of online commerce and engagement, there is great comfort to be found in actual one-on-one encounters or community experiences large and small, particularly those that offer guidance in the face of a wide open field filled with countless options.

Silos filled with wheat are awesome, but the eating is usually better at a bakery.

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Which helps to explain why, at a time when many of the major box bookstore chains are struggling, there’s been something of a resurgence in the independent bookstore world. Like travel agencies, indy booksellers were thought to be inexorably headed for the graveyard. But in 2011, membership in the American Bookseller Association increased nearly 16%, to more than 1,900 locations. Since 2005, in fact, more than 600 stores have opened and joined the trade group. As with travel agents, online booksellers need not necessarily fear their brick-and-mortor rivals. (Or at least not fear for their lives.) Like many service-oriented (or service-enhanced) businesses humbled by the overwhelming scope, force and breadth of the web, there is virtue in the small, the personal, the accompanied journey.

Sometimes, overwhelming forces are just for the people they’re meant to serve.