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Saturday, Jan 28, 2023
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Travel Agents Still Prove Valuable in the Digital Age

Mark Twain was famously quoted as saying,“The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” CEO Tama Holve of Willett Travel in Studio City has adapted this quote when she teaches her five students at the Willett Travel Academy, a small class she teaches to future agents making career switches if they give her a one-year comittment to the company. She tells them “the demise of the travel agency has been exaggerated.” With the recession and the Internet people might be left wondering what are travel agencies doing these days to adapt to new technologies and how are they doing it? They might be left wondering if the demise of the travel agency has been exaggerated. Holve says “they are alive and well.” The industry has seen tremendous consolidation since the recession, including large numbers of mergers. According to a CNN report, the American Society of Travel Agents said there were 37,000 brick and mortar travel agencies which have been reduced now to 18,000 agencies as of August when many “merged or folded.” However, according to a CNN.com story that ran last August travel agents may be making a comeback. A Forrester study indicated that only 43 percent of travelers are enjoying their online booking experience while 57 percent do not. This means people may be returning to the travel agent to figure out how to navigate their trip details on the Internet. According to Holve travel agents are still in around, just in a different form. Their role has changed and adapted to fit the modern world and economic situation. Local Travel agencies Willett Travel and Montrose Travel were interviewed about how the role of the travel agent has changed in a post-travel Web site era and how the role of the travel agent has changed since the recession. Holve has been with Willett since 1978, owned the agency jointly started in 1987 and took over sole ownership about 10 years ago. In that time Holve said she saw in the early 90s the introduction of these Internet sites for booking. Holve said Willett specializes in “customized individual travel.” Holve said the customer base was so diversified she could not give a breakdown. However, she did say that entertainment , business and family travels were some of the demographics that they target. “It was just really snuck up on us,” Holve said of the Expedia and Travelocity era. “I think it was something we were going along doing what we were doing and all of a sudden we realized we are not getting as many calls.” Holve said they reacted to client demand, with some agencies and agents “reacting more quickly than others. “It’s just knowing the years of experiences that many of us have.” Lots of experience Holve says travel agents can offer the knowledge of 60 professionals that share their clients experiences and personal experiences, and travel industry reviewers that they pay for. “Then we have our vendors or our hotel representative whose job it is to sell the properties but more importantly to develop a relationship with them with us so that we can trust their advice,” Holve said. “ The representative or hotel sales representatives are the ones we have developed trust with through the years.” She gave an example of a couple she had recently heard about who booked their honeymoon to Mexico on Expedia but the site neglected to mention that their hotel’s swimming pool was not yet completed. “It’s extraordinarily important and the Internet wasn’t going to tell them the hotel wasn’t finished they wanted those bookings they wanted the money,” Holve said. She said her reaction to the Internet age was based on the clients needs which Willett is here to fulfill. “You can get all the information but whose going to tell you that it’s really right for you,” Holve said. “If a woman is buying an important dress, let’s say she’s buying a wedding gown. How many women go out and buy a gown without someone that cares about them? Not many because they want to be with someone who really cares about them . . . That’s the same thing. If we sell the client just anything to make a quick buck they won’t come back to us because you can’t take a vacation back. That time is gone forever. It really is our desire to make sure that the business traveler has the easiest most successful trip ever. The vacation traveler has their dreams fulfilled.” Another trend in the post Expedia era that Holve mentioned was corporate travel returning to travel agencies to help save time. “If you think about it’s a very time consuming proposition to book your own travel, “ Holve said. “ If you’re looking at an executive who has a lot of tasks at hand and whose time is highly compensated by the corporation, for him to spend an hour doing a reservation and if he needs to make a change online, where’s the value in that? When we book that and we can do the hotel reservation and we’ll take advantage of all of our corporate discounts and take advantage of the relationships that we have.” Holve said this is also true for lower level employees. She said enforcing corporate travel policy on behalf of companies is easier for travel agencies. “A lot of web sites are used to purchase air,” Holve said. “Many people feel that travel agencies are out of business. If you’re buying air on the Internet or hotel or a cruise most of the time you’re buying from a travel agency just like mine. They’ve just chosen to put their marketing money into an online presence.” Holve also made the point that Expedia and Travelocity are often nonrefundable. She said the cost of losing one $400 Expedia ticket is like 10 $40 service fees where the trip is refundable. Adapting Leisure division manager of Montrose Travel Kate Bernier said with the advent of the Internet the biggest adaptation they’ve made is in their need to specialize in specific types of travel. They have agents at Montrose that specialize in cruises, the US and Hawaii, International travel and romance. Montrose opened in 1956. When Bernier started at Montrose Travel 20 years ago, there were 14 employees and it was a $4 million company. Now it’s a $110 million company with 150 in house and 500 home-based employees according to Bernier. Bernier said Montrose is divided into 50 percent international and Hawaiian travel and 50 percent cruise travel. Bernier said her agents have learned how to price shop. “Our agents embraced the Internet in finding the lowest rates. . . Online booking makes rates searching faster.” Some of the other tools they use to learn about vendors are industry functions and welcome home conversations where they learn from customer feedback, a practice which is also used at Willett. “The industry is constantly changing. We have to keep learning new things. Our agents want to know how somebody got a lower price and they used the Internet to do it.” She said the reason for this adaptation and embrace of the Internet partially has to do with the popularization of social media. “Booking agents feel safer,” Bernier said. “They are using technology in their personal lives . . . For some agents the transition was immediate. The younger they were the easier it was. But they taught it to the other agents. We saw the Internet as an opportunity although some agents struggled more than others.” Post Recession Holve also said the travel agenct’s role has changed to adapt to the recession. She said that despite economic woes, people especially want to go with a trusted company in times of trouble. “People will say if they’ve been around they really must be doing something right,” Holve said. “ We couldn’t be taking advantage of people or not being honest or working without integrity because we wouldn’t last very long. We’re probably the oldest travel agency in Los Angeles. We opened in 1943 and I’m only the third owner.” Holve said their largest financial issue is that since prices are so attractive to the consumer the travel agents are making less money. “The cruise that was $1000 last year is $700 this year,” Holve said. “Clients are getting added value but we’re making less money. We’re selling more and working harder for less money. We’ve also reduced overhead costs a lot. But the customer isn’t seeing that reduction. It’s all internal.” In addition, Holve has asked employees to pay for 25 percent of their healthcare costs for the first time, and she said they had to remove their full-time receptionist position. “People that work in support positions are sharing that role,” Holve said. At Montrose Travel, Bernier said they had a huge marketing push at the end of 2008 and the company actually grew during the recession in 2009. “We saw people were wanting to go somewhere but are scared to spend a lot of money,” Bernier said. “They wanted the best deal and value. No one sets the market. They didn’t advance the budget they advanced the good value idea.” As far as the cruise relationships have changed, Bernier said cruise line directors are looking at the bottom line as travel agencies are. She said they can help to fix problems. “Last year was tough, a family of five could take a five day cruise for $149, Bernier said.” This year is not as tough but still low. Vendors are looking at the bottom line.” Overall Bernier said travel agents aren’t going away “We’re just in a different form. We’re savvier with specialized agents and focused on information.”

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