Traditional Agents Battle Online Competition

Visiting a travel agent can give security, but websites are looking to add a personal touch.

Travel agents say that clients are coming back to them after getting frustrated with faceless do-it-yourself online booking systems. “They would push the button on some of these websites and that was it,” one agent says. “There was nobody to ask a question. Nobody to ask for help. When it comes to really spending money and wanting an advocate, people are turning back to agents because people care. A computer doesn’t.”

A study has found that 28% of leisure travellers in the US who booked trips online said they would prefer going to a traditional travel agent, up from 23% in 2008. Those who enjoyed using the internet to plan and book their vacations last year dropped to 46%, from 53% in 2007. Essentially, websites are clinical and intimidating. They are failing to simplify an increasingly complicated travel process and are not succeeding in meeting clients’ individual requirements.

The numbers of traditional agents have dropped in recent years due to changes in the economy, loss of commissions and the availability to buy products online. But a travel agent can provide personal advice and counselling if things go wrong, something that became obvious during the ash-cloud crisis in April, and they can avoid the headache for clients of varying travel rates and restrictions.

“Even little things that go wrong can be hard to handle if you don’t have an expert working on your behalf,” explains Paul Ruden, senior vice president for legal and industry affairs at the American Society of Travel Agents. “More people are realizing that.” Yet travel websites are doing well financially, with online bookings in the US projected to rise from $86.6 billion in 2011 to $110.7 billion by 2014. Booking online carries risks, for example if you misread or make a mistake.

But, as one regular traveller who books online says: “I don’t want to pay someone to read me a hotel description from a website.” The distinction between online and offline agencies are increasingly blurred as travel websites bring in round-the-clock customer service. The trend now is that frustration with travel websites is focussing on the need to introduce a personal touch online. But there are varying opinions on how this can be done.

USA Today
Photo: GNTB