Travel Agents Get Angry About the Internet 15 Years Too Late
Travel agents from Cooperative Travel in the U.K. receiving a best travel agency award in 2012. Holidayextras/Professional Images / flickr.com
Hell hath no fury like a travel agent scorned, but get real: Your market is a shrinking one. You can’t put online travel and the mobile revolution back into the bottle. This battle was already fought and lost a decade ago.
It’s a battle of lists, and of travel agents versus the Internet.
After Woman’s Day magazine published an article on “9 Things Travel Agents Won’t Tell You,” the travel agency association ASTA has answered back and published its own, competing list, detailing 8 Reasons Why Booking With a Travel Professional Creates Value.
The fact that a battle over the merits and demerits of using travel agents to plan vacations versus doing it on your own through the Web and mobile is being waged through the lists format gives the debate a modern feel, but otherwise the whole brouhaha feels like a pre-Web 2.0 time warp.
The online version of the article at issue, 9 Things Travel Agents Won’t Tell You, by Anne Roderique-Jones, has attracted 1,344 comments, mostly negative, with travel agents taking umbrage at the tone and substance of the piece.
Typical were comments like these:
The original Women’s Day article actually contained 10 things travel agents won’t tell you, but the publication withdrew an inaccurate item about most travel agents collecting airline commissions, which went by the wayside more than a decade ago.
Women’s Day is also making nice to all of the “hard-working travel agents” (the phrase seems to be a battle cry in the dispute) out there, and will be issuing mea culpa articles on the value of travel agents in October and December in print and online, respectively.
The list/article that drew travel agents’ ire basically argued correctly that some travel agents won’t necessarily disclose to the customer that they are earning commissions and fees, or that they don’t have access to all airlines; that they have preferred relationships with certain cruise lines, hotels, and travel insurance companies that might influence their recommendations; and that they may not find you the best price for the trip.
Other planks of the Women’s Day cautionary list, such as “They may be not have been to the hotel or on the cruise ship they’re recommending,” were wacky.
Given the number hotels and cruise ships in the world, as one travel agent commented that agents had better get busy traveling to make up for the fact that they haven’t been everywhere.
The bottom line is this: There are some great travel agents, and lousy ones out there. Indeed there are some “hard-working” travel agents, and some slouches, but the fact remains that you can plan and book most of your travel these days without using a travel agent.
It is not even debatable.
Helloooo: This is 2013.
If you want to get the best rates without incurring service fees, don’t think of using travel agents; some are very good about disclosing their fees, and others aren’t.
Still, if you don’t mind paying extra, and don’t want to spend hours asking friends, families and colleagues in person or through social media (enter Facebook, TripAdvisor and Gogobot) for advice so you can plan a trip, then travel agents are an alternative. And, they can often get your upgrades or special perks that you can’t find online.
But, for the vast majority of trips and leisure travelers, why bother.
(That being said, I recently emailed a travel agent asking which train goes directly from Brussels to Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport because it wasn’t readily apparent online.)
But, travel agents who signed the petition asking Woman’s Day to retract the article should be ashamed of themselves. The vast majority of travelers in all likelihood would agree with the article’s basic point: The Internet has empowered the consumer/traveler, who doesn’t need travel agents to plan the majority of their trips. And, there are plenty of things about how travel agencies actually work that your average travel agent doesn’t tell you when you walk through the door.
Travelers, of course, have voted with their fingers: They are planning and booking travel through travel websites and mobile apps while the number of travel agency locations has plummeted over the last decade.
ASTA predictably has reacted reflexively in defense of beleaguered travel agents who feel Woman’s Day has besmirched their fragile reputations.
To ASTA, travel agents provide “personalized service” and “customer advocacy” while online travel amounts to “a long list of travel Web pages,” “instructions on a Web page,” and “an impersonal voice thousands of miles away.”
The fact that many online travel sites have phone and chat support doesn’t get mentioned.
What ASTA and some travel-agent throwbacks don’t consider is that while traditional travel agents may always have a role for a diminishing number of customers, ASTA-member Expedia, HotelTonight, and Airbnb are the current sort of travel agents that millions of consumers prefer, and they are the portals to the future.