Travel Agents Make a Comeback

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During a 2011 town hall meeting, President Obama asked an assembled crowd of supporters when they last “used a travel agent instead of just going online?” The question was rhetorical, a call to arms for entrepreneurs and innovators, but it raised the hackles of the few agents left – the survivors yet to be taken down by big-pocket online travel agencies (OTAs) like Expedia, Priceline, Travelocity, and Hipmunk. Here’s the strange thing: Talk to those travel agents now and they’ll tell you that 2013 was a banner year and 2014 is looking good. 

Yes, the proliferation of online booking options killed the agency model, but the further proliferation created such a muddle of information (and misinformation) that expertise became even more critical. Resurrection ensued and travel agencies now thrive as boutique businesses for serious travelers. Do you need a travel agent to book a cruise? Nope. Do you want to talk to one when you’re planning a safari? Absolutely. These small businesses offer three crucial services.

Enhanced Customer Service

This past winter was miserable and the travelers stuck in airports across the country had the best seats in the house when snow storm after snow storm rolled over city after city. Stranded tourists and busy businessmen struggled to re-book, re-route, and re-think their plans, but many of them just lost time and money. They booked online. Passengers who booked through an agency could call their agent instead of the airline and rely on their connections to get to the front of the line. Knowing someone who knows someone (or something about airlines) makes a big difference, especially when obstacles are popping up left and right. When the weather looks bad or you’re catching the one flight to an obscure destination, it pays to have a lobbyist.

Travel Expertise

Google “Italian villas” and the search engine will helpfully refer you to 83,600,000 web pages – a number that is likely to go up, not down.The whole scene is reminiscent of the financial sector a decade ago when investors were enamored with the $10 e-trade. Why use a financial advisor when I can trade on my own? Well, because you don’t want to spend a good chunk of your life micromanaging your investments. The result of this glut of information is what travel agents refer to as “analysis paralysis.” Trips remain unbooked because there are too many options and too many reasons to second guess decisions. What the right agent can do – specifically a specialist – is get you the information you need and help you pull the trigger. Will they book the perfect hotel in Istanbul or just a really great hotel in Istanbul? It’s impossible to know. What they absolutely will do is get your ass to Istanbul.

Contacts Around the Globe

Many people like to travel independently to the far corners of the planet. That’s great, but it limits their ability to prepare because the internet is exactly as ignorant about obscure destinations as it is overly knowledgeable about common ones. Going to Burkina Faso? Get a travel agent. No, you’re probably not going to find one who knows much about hotels in Bobo-Dioulasso, but the agent will have or make local contacts and ask questions. Rather than passively waiting for information, agents proactively report. That makes them invaluable if you’re planning something that is equal parts vacation and expedition. You’ll also have someone to call should something go unexpectedly wrong – and it’s always good to have someone who’s got your back.