In the Dr. Seuss classic Horton Hears a Who!, a pachyderm attempts to rescue a population of microscopic critters living on a dust speck. The outside world cannot hear their individual, tiny voices; but when they collectively shout “We are here!”, they are discovered and saved.
Travel agents these days must feel a bit like the Whos. What do you do when the leader of the free world declares you extinct? In August 2011 at a town hall meeting, President Obama 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.”
ASTA, the professional society of travel agents, immediately started screaming “We are here!”, reminding the President that the travel agency is a vital cog in the US economy, generating over $146 billion in travel sales and providing 120,000 jobs. One travel agent was so incensed, he backed a Broadway play written specifically to promote the industry. The New York Times dismissed it as a “lightweight piece of twaddle,” but this type of commitment shows that travel agents are digging in for the long haul.
I think it will be a tough battle. The US Department of Labor predicts that the number of travel agents will decrease 12% by 2022 from the reported 73,300 in 2012. It wasn’t too long ago that every town had a storefront agency with exotic travel posters in the windows where you could wander in, ask the agent for vacation suggestions, browse through glossy brochures, and leave with airline tickets – actual tickets – in hand. It was all very civilized and exciting.
The storefronts disappeared first, supplanted by big-box retailers like Liberty Travel. Then hard tickets and detailed itineraries vanished as the nation’s vacationers became DIYers – convinced that by cross referencing reviews on Trip Advisor with packages offered by online travel agencies like Expedia and Orbitz, you’ll get the best vacation for the best price.
Or do you?
Facing the prospect of extinction, travel agents are asking consumers to give them a second chance. They argue that price-wise, they still have access to deals that aren’t available online. When disaster strikes, natural or man-made, they can help you rearrange flights. And they’ll save you time. “The average traveler is spending something like … nine web sessions and visiting 21 websites in order to book their travel,” said Mark Orwoll, an editor of Travel + Leisure magazine. “Travelers are really looking for some advice, somebody who can answer questions for them, somebody who has experience in traveling, and they can’t always get that online.” (CNN.com, “Travel Agents Know Something You Don’t”)
Hilary Brooke-Wavell, the executive director of Nyack, NY-based WAC Travel agrees. “I think many of our clients feel overwhelmed at the breadth of resources and differing reviews they encounter.”
Personally, I find the volume of information suffocating and it often paralyzes me during trip planning. I’ve recently started looking for travel consultants who specialize in a region or activity to guide my planning efforts. Because they offer a unique service, these experts may be the travel agents who survive the apocalypse. “Every property you approach will tell you they’re ‘the best’,” notes Doug Schlink, a sport fishing consultant with Angler Adventures. “Through personal experience and client feedback, I can illuminate the pros and cons of a property and help decide which best meets your individual needs.”
Originally offering trips to the world-wide destinations she and her staff had personally visited, Hilary noticed the majority of requests were for trips to Greece and Italy, so she decided to specialize in these destinations – and her business flourished. It’s primarily important to Hilary that her clients enjoy their “trip of a lifetime.” “We handpick guides and hotels based on the enthusiastic service they offer, as we have often found that it is the people who make the trip so special,” she explains. “Everything runs smoothly from beginning to end, so our clients can just relax and soak up the culture.”
When you use a travel specialist, you access the invaluable knowledge they’ve acquired over many years and many visits. With over 25 years’ experience, Doug has built up a stable of qualified, professional guides and properties that he uses when constructing an individualized itinerary. “I have an EcoTour guide in Costa Rica who is routinely described as a ‘National Treasure’ by many of my clients. I recently customized a 2-week trip for a couple that encompassed tarpon fishing on the Caribbean Coast, billfishing on the Pacific coast, and a week of customized, privately guided ecotours-a sampling of most of what the country has to offer.”
Trips constructed by a professional travel concierge are highly likely to include experiences you may not stumble upon if you plan your trip yourself, relying on guidebooks and internet sources. Hilary goes out of her way to arrange unique moments for her clients. One raved about a side tour to an organic farm. “We met lovely people who embraced us and fed us their specialties and they gave us a tour of the cheese farm. The winery she had us taken to (from 1462!!!) was also a treat where we met Mama who prepared a meal to die for after another wonderful tour of the premises.”
Many DIYers are convinced that they are saving money booking trips themselves and that using a consultant is expensive. Although some travel specialists do charge additional fees, WAC Travel doesn’t; they earn commissions from their suppliers. And they offer a variety of accommodation choices, including B&Bs, so people with lower budgets, as well as clients who have saved for a big splurge, can access Hilary’s unique trip-planning expertise. Doug provides the same budget flexibility, depending on the client’s preference. “We offer everything from basic fishing camps that offer clean, modest accommodations and 3 squares and a couple of local beers, to very upscale lodges with luxurious beds imported from France, 800-thread count sheets and true gourmet food and wines.”
Using a travel specialist alleviates much of the “what if?” dread that grounds travelers. For years, I’ve spent a spring week in St. Barths, booking a villa with Rhode Island-based WIMCO (For the record, I am not a nightclubbing super model; in the off-season St. Barth’s is a laid back, très casual island with fantastic restaurants and gorgeous beaches.). It would be relatively easy and definitely cheaper for me to book a rental on my own. But WIMCO’s agents spend a significant amount of time on the island and they are able to avert vacation disaster for their clients. For example, the past two years, we’ve been alerted to construction occurring in the vicinity of our pre-arranged villa and WIMCO switched locations for us. If I’d booked on my own, my vacation playlist would have consisted of drumming jackhammers.
Vacation time and dollars are precious, so using an experienced agent may be your best bet. Who knows? Maybe other displaced professionals will band together to mount a comeback. Frankly, I’d be thrilled to place my next call and hear a live voice ask “How may I help you today?”