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I wrote a column last year about how the tools and utilities that help us discover can also put us into recommendation bubble. Things like Foursquare, for all of its merits, sometimes inadvertently lead us to places that the types of people who use that app like.
I’ve noticed the same bubble when researching and booking travel. It is a minefield of SEO, paid-for listings, and gaming the system. For example, one of my best hospitality experiences of the year at the Dharmawangsa in Jakarta came through world-of-mouth, but I honestly would not have been led there otherwise.
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On my last night at the hotel, I sat down, pretending to do research into a trip to Jakarta and found that the hotel was so far buried underneath paid for TripAdvisor listings, paid search and search engine optimization (SEO), etc that I would never have unearthed it. Sure, there is an abundance of excellent hotels in town — Raffles, the Mandarin Oriental, the new Four Seasons — but it seemed odd that such an institution was so far buried in the slurry of the online travel booking ecosystem.
Obviously, getting “heads in beds” is a vicious battlefield for hotels, but the current state of affairs really hurts the consumer trying to find the best possible experience for their money, something this columnist feels very strongly about. I spoke to a PR rep at the hotel who told me that in earlier, more objective times, they were rated the number one hotel on TripAdvisor in Jakarta, before the site began asking you to pay for listing. What is an elegant, classic hotel to do?
For the consumer, word-of-mouth is obviously the answer. But is hard to come by. There’s obviously the ever narrowing list of sites and magazines (The FT, Monocle, The Travel Almanac) that I trust. Also, well-travelled friends, and even sites like Tablet Hotels that generally have a well curated and ruthlessly edited list of what’s good in town.
But for all of the talk of automation, digitization and personalization, I am reminded that the trusty old travel agent still has a very important role in the world. At their best, they can be an arbiter of taste, knowing hotel and airline products inside and out, and generally being that trusted filter that the Internet cannot in its current state.
Now, all travel agents aren’t created equal, but when you find a great one, there is a discernible improvement to your traveling life. In the past year, my travel agent, Eric Hrubant and his team helped me find the best hotels in unfamiliar cities, helped me understand what airline seat or product was better than the other, managed costs and got deals, and also troubleshooted a series of tough travel snarls quickly and easily. His team were adept at beating the system. And this system, in many ways, is very much rigged against the traveling consumer with confusing fare rules, the aforementioned SEO battleground, and quickly shape shifting products and new openings.
It helps to have an ally, especially as we realize that algorithms aren’t always the answer, that our cookies may be betraying us as we peruse travel online, and that it is hard to find objective, solid information. As a result, the profession should get another look, even for the general traveller.