English Corner

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The travel agent of the future

Von Ben West

Technology is transforming travel agency: will it kill off the need for a traditional travel agent or is there always a place for human interraction in travel booking?

A few years ago it really seemed that the age of the travel agent was over. A Mintel study in 2012, for example, found that 70% of the 1078 people surveyed booking a holiday in 2011 booked  entirely online. Fewer than one in ten consumers believed that agents were better informed about holiday destinations than professional bloggers or review websites such as TripAdvisor. More than half of customers (52%) believed that holidays were cheaper when booked online and 40% enjoyed being able to put together their own holiday on the internet.

The rise of online travel agencies and DIY travel initially led to a dramatic reduction in the travel agency workforce – as much as 50% in some quarters.

However, since then travel agents have been responding and adapting to the vastly changed travel market and numerous indicators show that the travel agent is here to stay.

MMGY Global’s latest Portrait of the American Traveler survey showed that 19% of travellers used an agent in 2016, up from 13% in 2013. This increase has occured despite at the same time a widespread move away from traditional brick and mortar storefront agencies. They have increasingly been working as independent contractors, usually joining up with a bigger consortia for training, marketing tools, and access to better travel content.

Agents are increasingly embracing the new technologies

Agents have been increasingly adapting to the huge changes in travel booking. Whilst for simple transactions, such as booking a shorthaul flight or night at a hotel, you’d most likely hook up to an airline or hotel booking website, if you want something a bit more complex such as unique experiences tailored to your priorities or a tour of an unknown destination on a distant  continent, you are far more likely to use a travel agent, especially when budget becomes less and less important.

Agents are retaining business by becoming more customer-centric and focusing on services that meet the customer’s priorities. Travel agent networks like American Express Travel and Virtuoso are able to tailor niche packages at special rates to repeat customers and business travellers, something that many travel websites cannot do.

Agents are increasingly embracing the new technologies and providing a personalised experience for the traveller using these technologies rather than responding defensively to online and mobile technologies. They are increasingly using technology to market their services via social media as well as use technologies to access detailed product and destination information.

The traditional old school travel agent is actually benefitting from the huge proliferation of online choices that have become  so overwhelming these days. New travel websites have been launching at a ferocious rate for many months, each with a new angle or niche, or claiming to deliver travel in a way we’ve supposedly never seen done before. Whether a train fare calculator, itinerary sharing site or automated booking engine, it can be more and more difficult and time consuming to wade through the dross to get to the really important information to book your holiday independently.

Indeed, a survey of 2000 travellers worldwide by the I.B.M. Institute for Business Value found that 20% of respondents said it took them more than five hours to search and book travel online, and nearly half said it required more than two hours.

Customers are feeling it is worth paying a relatively small fee

That’s where an experienced travel agent can step in and save considerable time, and offer their expertise as an antidote to this overkill of information and choice. Many customers are increasingly feeling it is worth paying a relatively small fee in exchange for an agent vastly easing the booking process.

More and more agents are looking at ways they can differentiate from what internet booking sites offer, such as focusing on pulling strings and mining their large range of contacts to be able to offer special experiences that a consumer cannot easily arrange on their own, such as special after-hours tours, an ability to find a room in a supposedly full hotel or a plane ticket in times of very high demand.

Seth Kugel, a New York Times writer, compared deals with online sites like Expedia and Kayak with various US travel agencies, and virtually every time the travel agents beat the internet deals both on price and service. The agents provided extra help such as suggesting alternative routes and giving advice on things like visas.

It’s clear agents are being saved by our need for the human touch - a computer algorithm simply cannot beat human experience.