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February 24th, 2012 - Dean Anderson

Destination: relevance


Travel agents sell service in Internet age


 

Ivy Bradford’s career as a travel agent has followed a path different than most. The manager of Prime Time Travel in Edmond got into the business in 1987 and worked through 2000 before taking a break for motherhood.

She missed 9/11 and the Internet travel boom, but when she returned to the field in 2010, the landscape looked different.

“Huge changes,” Bradford says. For instance, more than half the travel agencies in business in the late 1990s are now shuttered. That Internet sites like Orbitz, Travelocity and Expedia now not only let people plan entire vacations from their laptops, but also at prices once only reserved for travel agents.

Airfare rates have been online for more than a decade now. And the U.S. government recently legislated even more transparency into the booking process by requiring airlines post the final price upfront and not just before you hit “purchase.”

right Ivy Bradford

With all these changes, what’s left for a travel agent to do?

“At this point in this industry, what we have to offer is our expertise,” Bradford says. “It’s our knowledge on locations, our experience with traveling and our clients traveling and the feedback we get. It’s the customer-service side of it.”

With consumers now having access to so much, travel agents are having to sell their hard-earned knowledge to make ends meet.

“They feel more comfortable knowing someone who has been there,” says Ann West, co-owner of Express Travel in Oklahoma City. “People are going back to more personalized customer service. You only have to get hurt once on the Internet and get stuck in line with an airline.”

WHAT THE EYJAFJALLAJÖKULL?
Over a span of six days in April 2010, 20 countries closed their airspace due to the eruption of Eyafjallajökull, a volcano in Iceland.

Nearly 100,000 flights were canceled. “Those people who had booked on Expedia and things like that, they had no one to come back to,” Bradford says. “They were literally on their own. The people with travel agents had someone to call.”

West admits she uses sites such as TripAdvisor extensively when researching properties she’s not quite familiar with. Comments from guests who have stayed recently can be invaluable in putting together itineraries.

But it doesn’t stop there. West, who specializes in corporate and group travel, flew more than 50,000 miles last year.

SEARCH TO NOWHERE
With knowledge comes power, right? The Internet is more like information overload for some people.

“For my clients, they get on there and they’re going to spend hours and hours and hours researching and looking,” Bradford says. “There are so many options, they get overwhelmed. They come to me and say they don’t know what to do.”

She offered to help a friend last year plan a Disney vacation, but was turned down. After hours of searching, her friend had it all planned. All eight of them showed up at the rental car counter to find they had booked an economy car. From there, they discovered their accommodations were an hour away from the park and they hadn’t even purchased tickets yet.

“By the time it was all said and done, and they looked at what they spent, it was $2,000 more,” she says.

DESTINATION UNKNOWN
In December, CBS Money Watch worked industry professionals into a froth when it cited a Bureau of Labor Statistics job outlook report that rated travel agents as the No. 4 dying profession in America. The report prognosticated 1,200 fewer travel agents by 2018.

Travel industry research company PhoCusWright says there are about 20,000 agencies now, down from a high of 44,000 in 1997.

The 2011 Consumer Trends Survey painted a very sobering picture for travel agents. The statistics show that travel agents capture just 8% of the entire travel market.

Still, local agents say that can be enough for an agency focused on the right things.

“I would say in five to 10 years, if you have a good base of clients and you continue your customer service, you’ll get a lot of referrals,” Bradford says. “You can’t be just an order taker. You have to be more of a concierge.”

Photo by Mark Hancock

 
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