Skift Take

Travel agents have come a long way since the early days of travel. Despite the rise of online travel websites and do-it-yourself planning, savvy travel agents are doing better than ever with the help of their networks.

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Thanks to technology, travel is accessible to nearly anyone, anywhere in the world — but it wasn’t always that easy. Just a few decades ago, travelseekers relied solely on travel agents to book everything from flights and connections to activities and accommodations. We’re taking a look at how different the world of travel was decades ago, how dramatically things have changed and, in some ways, stayed the same.

In order to get a better understanding, we contacted Signature Travel Network. Signature is a cooperative of retail travel agents that was founded in 1956 — and is celebrating 60 years of providing Travel Agent members with a robust portfolio of travel products, marketing materials, connections, state of the art technology, destination information, and education and training.

Prior to World War II, commercial air travel was for the elite only, due to its high cost. Air travel didn’t really take off until the 1940s, with the debut of the Douglas DC-4 and the Boeing 377. Customers relied on travel agents to book flights and could typically only do so in person, over the phone, or by mail. When it came time to booking a flight, agents arranged transportation by hand, referring to the Official Airline Guide (OAG) — a thick book printed once a month — containing airline routes and times. The manual process of reserving a seat, choosing a flight, and writing a ticket out by hand could take hours at a time. And as the number of flights and airline companies increased, so did the difficulty of keeping up with the growth.

Enter SABRE. In the 1960s, American Airlines and IBM came together to develop the first central reservation system (CRS). With the help of technology and computers, travel agents were finally able to book travel electronically, in real-time, and on a greater scale.

As leisure travel became more popular, so did the use of travel agents. With limited knowledge of travel destinations and transportation, more and more consumers turned to experts to handle their travel needs, paving the way for travel consortiums like Signature Travel Network.

In 1956, Signature created one of the first networks for the travel industry. Despite air travel’s rise in popularity, most people in the 1950s crossed the Atlantic and Pacific by ship. “One of the driving forces for Signature Travel Network (formerly Leisure Tours) was the desire for more visibility and more clout with the cruise lines,” says Ignacio Maza, executive vice president at Signature.

The company, which unites cruise lines, hotels, tourism boards, travel agents, and tour operators within one network, was built with an entrepreneurial spirit. “From the very beginning, the group did not want to be a franchise,” says Maza. “The company wanted every [travel] agency to be independent and market themselves in their own unique way.” Every member of the network doubles as shareholder, ensuring everyone has a true stake in the company’s success.

Signature got its start in southern California, eventually moving to northern California, Colorado, and Nevada by the 1990s. Today, the Signature network is comprised of over 6,000 travel professionals across the entire country as well as Canada, Brazil, Mexico, Australia, and New Zealand. Members of the network benefit from technology solutions, and exceptional suite of consumer privileges, advanced marketing platforms, and access to the industry’s leading providers — from cruise lines to car rentals to travel insurance.

“Our travel professionals have relationships with select suppliers across the world, says Maza. “Travelers directly benefit from these relationships and the collective power of the network.”

With so many online travel agency options to choose from, having a travel agent might not be the most common option in 2016. But trends are proving that having access to a wealth of information comes with its own set of challenges. “We have more information at our fingertips than ever before,” says Maza. “I can see how easy it is for travelers to feel completely overwhelmed. Travel professionals can assist with this by finding the best options at the right cost.”

Data agrees. In recent years, millennials — a generation raised with the internet and a DIY mentality — have been turning to travel agents more and more. Research conducted by the American Society of Travel Agents found that 30% of millennials booked travel using an agent in the past 12 months. Twenty-two percent of Americans making $50,000 or more booked travel through an agent, up from 14% the year prior.

“Sure, you could go online and book it yourself, but if you book it through a travel agent, you’ll get so much more value, not to mention solutions that are right for you as an individual,” says Maza.

As Signature Travel Network celebrates 60 years, we’ll take a look at how the organization has remained relevant and successful for over half a century, and what we can expect from the travel industry in the future.

This content was created collaboratively by Signature Travel Network and Skift’s branded content studio SkiftX.

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Tags: technology, travel agents

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