It’s great to see the “Buy Local” trend has really caught on. However, people seem passionate about buying just about everything locally – except for travel. Travel, along with pornography, are the top things sold online. Last year President Obama made a gaffe when he said, “One of the challenges in terms of rebuilding our economy is businesses have gotten so efficient that – 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? A lot of jobs that used to be out there requiring people now have become automated.”
Many travel agents were upset by his comments, but the reality is that the President was just telling the truth. And although I think people will not go back to using bank tellers instead of ATMs, I believe that more and more people will go back to buying some, if not all, of their travel from a travel agent.
One main reason is that there is just too much noise out there on travel – do you really want to spend 100 hours researching the “right” hotel in Cancun when you can actually call someone who has not only been there, but has sent literally thousands of people there, most of who are giving the agent up to date information on the hotel and the destination in general. Think of it as your own personal, pre-edited, trustworthy Tripadvisor. You don’t know the people who review on these sites and why they wrote what they did (was the front desk person really that bad – or was the writer just upset because he did not get upgraded?). For the most part your agent’s only agenda is to create an exceptional vacation for you – one which will lead to future business.
A second is that a good agent is constantly researching travel for hundreds of clients. It gives her the ability to earmark things that might be good for you. So instead of your sorting through vast numbers of emails from hotels/airlines/cars, she does it for you and is happy to send you a note when something comes up that she knows will be of interest to you.
And lastly, when something goes wrong (and that is happening more and more these days) you have someone to go to bat for you. When your return flight from Cancun gets cancelled – do you really want to spend the last two days of your vacation on the phone trying to fix it, or would you prefer that someone who books and rebooks plane tickets all day and who has a relationship with the airline that you don’t can get it done while you are sipping that really nice umbrella drink next to the pristine waters of the Caribbean? And if that same flight got cancelled while on a cruise, one can only imagine what the cost would be (and of course the time wasted) trying to fix it online with the notoriously slow and outrageously expensive onboard computers. In most cases your agent would have been notified by the airline and taken care of the changes before you even knew about it. Back to the shuffleboard – or just more time to finish your favorite book while at sea.
I was thrilled to see Michelle Higgins’s article in last Sunday’s New York Times. She writes:
“An improving economy and the corporate travel that goes with it seem to be converging with a population for whom booking travel online has become increasingly onerous and time-consuming. Just how time-consuming? In a survey of more than 2,000 travelers worldwide, 20 percent said it took them more than five hours to search and book travel online. Nearly half said it required more than two hours. (Source: Steve Peterson, global travel and transportation leader for the I.B.M. Institute for Business Value)
“No one expects agency business to rebound to pre-Internet levels, but recent signs — like the fact that leisure travelers accounted for a 10 percent bump in sales in 2010 (a bit less in 2011) — suggest that agents can still play a relevant role. And though no one has been keeping track of the reasons travelers are turning to actual human beings, Mr. Peterson suspected it might have something to do with the drawbacks of the Web.”
Am I biased? Yes. While I was part-owner of RSVP Vacations, we were sold exclusively by travel agents. Many were (and in some cases still are) close friends after 23 years. In all of those years I witnessed firsthand how these agents took care of their clients and ensured that they had the best vacation possible. Travel to me is about personal relationships – and I think to start a trip of right it is better to call and talk to a human than try and get the online agency to stop giving you a connection through Tibet because it is $1.33 less expensive.