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VOL. 37 | NO. 9 | Friday, March 01, 2013

Good travel agents find deals the Internet alone can’t

By Harriet Wallace

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Traditional travel agencies, already struggling in the Internet age, took a double whammy during the recession as individuals became their own travel agents, using online tools to search for deals on air travel, hotel rooms, car rentals and activities.

“During the recession, people still wanted to go on vacation,” says Erica James, owner of Erica James Travel in Nashville. “Instead of going at the drop of a dime, people planned earlier and made payments each month instead of paying upfront.”

Today, group travel makes up 85 percent of her business.

Still, agencies are also looking at ways to work with the Internet savvy client.

“Travelers now often research their trip needs online and then call agencies to see if the agency can get a better price,’’ says Pam Wright, CEO of Wright Travel in Nashville.

“A lot of information is accessible to travelers if they want to take time to research it on their own. Most travelers are looking for a great deal, and they don’t want to pay full price when travel venues are so competitive.’’

In the 1990s, the agency business reached a high point with 34,000 retail locations across the United States.

Today, less than half remain, but Forbes magazine listed travel agencies as one of the hot start-ups of 2013, saying that the rise of online, do-it-yourself travel is a business opportunity for sellers of more complex vacation packages. Agents make commissions on selling products from cruise lines, tour companies, hotels and car rental agencies.

The group experience

Clients, like Nashville’s Dantriel McWilliams, turn to James for special events such as high school reunion trips.

Faced with planning a vacation to Mexico for close to 40 people from several cities for a 20th reunion holiday, he sought professional help, even with all the Internet tools at his fingertips.

“It’s great to be able to have someone do the thinking for you and the leg work for you sometimes,” McWilliams says. “With the things I have on my plate, I can just give it to Erica and she can take it from there.”

When McWilliams isn’t planning a large group trip, he turns to the Internet to plan his leisure trips, opting to do his own research and book trips online through various sites like Expedia or Travelocity.

Research by PhoCusWright, a marketing research company that focuses on the travel industry, shows three-fourths of travelers using search engines to look for hotel rooms, while 58 percent those going online also search for airline tickets.

Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter also are gaining momentum in the travel game. Experts say comments posted by travelers influence people’s travel and buying choices. Growth of the online travel business also shifted airline companies into no longer offering commission payouts to travel agencies.

“It impacted me,’’ James says. “I had to rise to the occasion.”

In addition to offering her in-person services, James gives travelers the option to book travel themselves on her website. The booking options are connected to the exclusive discounts that she receives.

Wright Travel has also upgraded its technological presence, offering online booking for its corporate clients.

Agent as ally

Both James and Wright say their agencies still have a strong roster of clients who continue to use their services and trust them with their plans. The Internet offers special deals, but it’s often too overwhelming for the average traveler, James says.

“There is so much information out there on the Internet,” James explains. “One person cannot weave through all of that info to get through what they want. People think the Internet is so great, but there’s so much info that you can’t understand it.

“You don’t have to spend hours on the Internet to find one ticket for your son when a travel agent can find it for you in a matter of minutes. So you save time.”

Both agents say the Internet might offer good deals, but an agent can offer you a good deal and more, especially someone to take care of emergencies and other issues that might arise.

“If you book something online, you have no ally,’’ James explains. “You don’t have anyone to help you or solve your issues. If you work with a travel agent, you just call us and we take care of it in minutes.

“We have perks. The Internet doesn’t care about you. The Internet is going to give you exactly what you bought. The agent is going to go over and beyond.’’

Wright agrees.

“(In the 80s), it was much more of a face- to-face business,” she explains. “Customer service is still just as important, and agents still talk to the customers, but they do so on a less-frequent basis.”

James says she remains confident that the industry will rebound and more people will return to traditional agencies.

“The more these (online) sites put out info, the more people will come back to travel agents. Complex trips, you can’t book that on the internet. If you’re spending $12,000-$15,000 on a trip, you do not want to spend that on the Internet.

“People are coming back to travel agents because they want more than cookie cutter trips. They want an experience.’’

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