The new breed of travel agents offering more value for money
David Jessop, Contributor
Travel agents, for over a decade a dying breed in many parts of the world, are making a comeback, but in many cases as specialist travel advisers offering a personalised service
For years now, travellers of all kinds have become accustomed to booking online everything from packaged holidays to hotels, flights and other services. For most, this made them feel more in charge, more easily able to obtain discounts or select the exact connections they wanted; but a trend steadily emerging in some parts of the travel market now suggests otherwise.
Independent-minded travellers are beginning to tire of the time they waste on the Internet and the often frustrating experience of finding exactly what they are looking for. They are instead turning to the new breed of travel agent. Businesses, too, having made their staff responsible for their own bookings within company guidelines, are starting to realise that for anything other than a short out-and-back travel, it is worth paying in efficiency alone. They see the US$50 plus booking fee for complex itineraries that many travel agents have charged since airlines ended or reduced commissions as value for money.
Speaking recently to colleagues and those who travel frequently for business and pleasure, it is clear that they want to be able to identify rapidly flights, connections and hotels when, for instance, booking multi-sector travel in regions like the Caribbean, Latin America or South East Asia which involve more than one airline, or as one highly respectable Asian business acquaintance suggested, routings that avoid his bad experience in US ports. The consequence is that they all, without exception, wanted to use a travel adviser if they can find someone who understands them and their needs.
This trend at the higher end of the business and leisure market suggests that there is a large business opportunity waiting to be filled.
According to industry experts, those companies offering travel-advisory services are likely to be very different to the high-street travel agent of old. They spend time getting to know their customers and needs, provide value-added services that include planning, accommodation and leisure activities, and are able to develop complex itineraries involving multiple forms of transport and make and monitor all bookings. They will almost all offer a host of ancillary facilities, selling up, for instance, hard-to-get-into events and restaurants.
The suggestion, too, is that this part of the market is evolving rapidly to embrace new technology and in future will provide apps for smartphones, enabling location-specific online travel guides for clients; round-the-clock support; will be linked to multi-service centres or to others such as banks that offer concierge-type services to their higher-end customers; may chose to diversify by region; and may create linkages and cross-selling opportunities with other similar advisers providing personal expertise they cannot match.
Articles in the mainstream US media confirm the overall trend. In a test of agents versus online search engines, The New York Times suggested that agents won nearly every time on both price and service; and in a recent interview with USA today, Adam Weissenberg, the leader of Deloitte's US Travel, Hospitality and Leisure business, was quoted as saying that travellers are more willing to turn to professionals when they're dealing with unusual locations or high-end luxury and specialised travel.
For the Caribbean, which needs to do much more to differentiate its product from other upscale warm-water destinations and offer more, these developments should be particularly interesting. Being able to ensure visitors feel immediately comfortable with where they have chosen and receive the welcome and service levels they are accustomed to is what will help ensure satisfaction and repeat visits.