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Many say that online travel booking sites like Expedia and metasearch services such as Kayak have essentially killed the traditional travel agent over the last 20 years.
In addition to online booking going mainstream, the disappearance of agent commissions for air ticket bookings and travel information becoming readily available online contributed to this downturn as well.
Statistics bear out this staggering decline: There were about 117,000 travel agents in the U.S. in 1997, and just 74,100 still active in 2014, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook. Travel agent employment is also set to decline by another 12 percent from 2014 to 2024.
For those agencies left standing, the challenge isn’t how to survive. Smart players are looking to the future of consumer habits and technology usage provide better service than their online peers.
Today, travel agency consortia are beginning to partner with digital booking tools as part of a new wave of computer-assisted travel services.
Paul English’s new mobile-only travel service Lola has enrolled with luxury travel agency group Virtuoso as a travel agency member in what amounts to a rapprochement between competitors in the crowded travel services’ sector.
Lola’s chief marketing officer Robert Birge said this week that the partnership was mainly driven by the company’s interest in access to Virtuoso’s network of luxury hotels, including the perks for guests that comes with it. American Express’ Fine Hotels & Resorts was another partnership option.
English and Birge worked together at Kayak, of which English is a co-founder.
Lola is now in talks with potential airline partners, as well.
Despite its travel technology bonafides and approximately $20 million in seed funding, Lola is likely facing a conundrum that affects most small travel agencies.
With only 15 agents on staff, the company can only place a limited number of bookings with its travel partners. This means the company can’t get preferred rates and access to high-demand hotel inventory that bigger players get.
Like many traditional travel agencies, Lola has signed on with a bigger consortium that provides purchasing power alongside other resources like training materials for staff and trip-focused technology tools.
For Virtuoso, the partnership helps pad the consortium’s reputation for being on the forefront of travel technology. The company’s Virtuoso Incubator program has taken a startup-like approach to improving both consumer-facing and behind-the-scenes travel technology.
Birge also told Skift in an email that Lola has no plans yet to share its proprietary technology with Virtuoso.
“We do not have any current plans to test our technology with partners,” Birge wrote. “We’re focused on developing our service. We’re excited about joining Virtuoso and learning from them and their other member agencies.”
For the time being, we’ll be watching to see how a mobile-focused travel company like Lola will gel alongside traditional luxury travel agencies. One thing is for sure, though: The traditional travel agency model is primed for change.