Four cases where professional expertise beats DIY travel planning
By Catey Hill
Job site CareerCast recently put them on its “most useless professions” list, many consumers have stopped calling or visiting them, and even some within the industry worry they may soon be out of work. After all, when it’s so easy for consumers to plan and book their own travel online, does anyone need a travel agent anymore?
While “travel agents used to be mostly mom-and-pop, brick-and-mortar shops selling trips to Disney World and cruises and things like that,” that’s all changing, says Elias Garcia, a marketing specialist at travel company Global Basecamps. Many agents still provide such services of course, but fewer and fewer are doing so, because those package deals, as well as one-off plane tickets and hotel rooms — once more difficult for regular people to find and compare on their own — are now at most everyone’s fingertips, he says. Despite that, one in four airline tickets is still sold by brick-and-mortar travel agents, according to industry estimates. (70% is for corporate travel and the rest leisure.)
While the professions prospects may be dimming, the ranks of a certain type of travel agent — one who puts together complicated and unique itineraries for wealthier consumers — are growing, experts say. These “travel consultants” distinguish themselves by being experts on the destinations they sell trips to. A sample trip, for instance, might include dinner with a local family, tickets to a VIP event, a boat rental, and a tour around town with a trustworthy guide. According projections from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, overall employment of travel agents is projected to increase by 10% from 2010 to 2020, but the agency notes that “job prospects should be best for travel agents who specialize in specific destinations or particular types of travelers, such as groups with a special interest or corporate travelers.”
“Generalists haven’t survived particularly well,” says Tony Gonchar, the vice president of American Express Travel; instead, more travel agents today are specialists, tending to focus on specific destinations or experiences, he says. “They’ll know that you should go to this restaurant at this time of day and sit in this seat for the best sunsets,” he says, adding they may even have an existing relationship with the restaurant’s manager.
The role of a travel agent has changed so much, in fact, that some don’t typically do the types of tasks that used to be standard: “When clients call me for a flight, I tell them ‘you don’t need to call me for that,’” says Denver-based travel consultant Joseph Sobin, noting that it’s often cheaper for clients to book flights directly online. “But if you want to know what to do and how to do it when you get there, call me for that.” And many travel agents now differentiate themselves in a whole new way: Rather than competing on price, “we focus on a service-oriented experience where we meet clients as soon as they step off the aircraft, are on call 24/7 and take responsibility if something goes wrong.” says Richard Bexon, the COO of Costa Rica-based Costa Rica Vacations.
For their part, consumers seem to be responding: Roughly one in five consumers with $100,000 or more in household income used an agent to book a trip in the past year, according to a study by research firm Harrison Group and American Express Publishing. That number is up from one in seven in 2009, and Jim Taylor, vice chairman of research firm Harrison Group, expects it to rise even more in the coming years.
Of course, you’ll pay for their services, though not necessarily out of your own pocket: Traditional agents are often compensated by the vendors they use, getting 7.5% to 15% of the total cost of the travel booked with that vendor, with the average being about 10%, says Sobin. The new breed of agents, Sobin says, often charge a one-time or hourly fee. And many may be paid both ways. Ask your agent how he or she is compensated to make sure you’re getting a fair deal; as with financial advisers, agents who are compensated by vendors may be biased toward a certain type of tour, even if it’s not the best one for you.
Beach near Nosara, Costa Rica.
Bottom line: Many people don’t need a travel agent. This is particularly true for those taking simple trips to well-known destinations — like flying to the Caribbean to stay at a resort — since it’s relatively easy and often cheaper to book the hotels, flights, cruises, cars and travel packages for trips like this online yourself. Internet-savvy individuals willing to do their research — to separate the good hotels, events and attractions from the bad — probably don’t need the help of an agent either.
When should you reach out to a travel agent?
• If you want someone to call when things go wrong: Nearly 70% of affluent consumers who use travel agents say what’s most important is that an agent protect them or help them when things go wrong with a trip, according to a study by Harrison Group and American Express Publishing. “Travel agents are a kind of insurance,” Taylor say. For many agents, this means being on call at all hours.
• If you’re pressed for time or just want to avoid hassles: About one in three travelers feels overwhelmed by the amount of travel information online, according to the American Express Spending & Savings Tracker, a survey that looks at Americans’ spending and saving habits. If you’re in this group, or simply don’t have time to deal with trip planning, travel agents can do it all for you. Tell them where you want to go and the types of things you like to do, and they can put together a list of options for you and book them, saving you time. Agents are particularly useful to travelers who plan to take complicated trips, or go to multiple destinations or with multiple generations, says Gonchar.
• If you want more of a local experience: Good travel consultants have relationships with locals in your destination, experts say, so they can do things like arrange for you to have dinner with a local family, recommend restaurants and pubs that residents like but tourists don’t tend to know about, or find a tiny B&B for you to stay at where you can get to know the owner.
• If you want a highly customized experience: More and more travelers are asking for one-of-a-kind trips specifically tailored to their likes, says Gonchar. A foodie might want something like a private cooking class in Italy, a meet-and-greet with a chef she’s been reading about and a table in the private wine room of a restaurant. While she might not have the connections to get this done herself, a travel agent with deep local knowledge might be able to make this happen for her, Gonchar says.
Sobin says that the best way to find a travel agent is to get referrals from people you know. If you don’t know anyone, call a handful of agents and ask them questions about the destination you want to go to and the kinds of things he or she recommends there, to see if the agent has the insider knowledge and connections to make your trip unique. Experts also recommend that you ask for referrals and then call previous clients to ask about their experiences.