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For travel agents, 2015 was a year of trying to raise awareness with consumers. It was also a year of conflict with companies looking to cut them out of the travel distribution marketplace.
While the travel agency community in the U.S. is about back to the same size as before the last recession, it has struggled more than ever before in remaining relevant to consumers, who have embraced online and mobile booking tools.
The disappearance of travel agency storefronts, with many agencies opting to run home-based operations instead, hasn’t helped either.
Regardless, there is still the opportunity for crafty travel agencies to become more relevant again. Here are the ways travel agents looked to improve their business and visibility in 2015.
Statistics say agents are returning in a big way
New statistics from the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) showed that the impact of travel agents in North America is on the rise.
“Consumers are increasingly using travel advisors and I think the data bears that out,” said Zane Kerby, president of ASTA. “Average sales are on the rise, and agencies are thriving with 84 percent of our members in the first three quarters of 2014 reporting that their revenues were better than the year before. I think the reason behind that is there is so much information available now to people on the internet that you need a professional guide to make sense of it all.”
As agents go independent, their need for support grew
The trend of independent agents partnering with larger agency groups continued, with hosted agents and independent contractors now comprising about half of U.S. travel agents, according to some industry experts.
“We give those who have developed a niche in the industry every tool they need to compete against [agents] with a larger base,” said Cadence CEO and founder Wendy Burk. “It gives them preferred partner relationships, so there’s added value and amenity; it creates VIP treatment they can curate for one client or many clients.”
Some airlines are looking to get away from agents
Lufthansa Group ticked off the global travel agency community when it moved to charge an $18 fee whenever agents booked a Lufthansa ticket using a global distribution system.
Agents were forced to move their bookings to other airlines in order to offer their clients more competitive airfares.
Others are looking to court them
But at the ASTA Global Convention in September, representatives of the top North American airlines assured travel agents on hand that they won’t follow in Lufthansa’s footsteps.
“Lufthansa is a great partner of ours, but I can’t speak on behalf of Lufthansa,” said David Hilfman, senior vice president of sales for United, which has a codeshare partnership with Lufthansa. “They have obviously come to the conclusion that its in their best interest, and they’ve articulated those things publicly and in meetings with their partners and the travel agency community. They have to make the decision on what’s right for them in terms of their business objectives. The market always tells you whether you make the right business decision.”
The truth is the travel agencies, and corporate agencies in particular, still yield a lot of influence in air travel.
Smart agencies focused on service, not order taking
A new consensus has emerged among travel agents that the future of the business is about providing specialized service instead of merely taking orders for clients.
Virtuoso CEO Matthew Upchurch spoke at the 2015 Skift Global Forum about what travel agents need to do to redefine themselves for the future.