Travel agents find routes to survival

An extended family of 23 had just returned from a vacation exploring Seattle, Vancouver, and Alaska. That's when travel agent Irene Ross asked if she could check the credit-card bill of her client, who had spent about $60,000 to pay for everyone. Ms. Ross, president of Ross Travel Consultants in Boston, noticed that her client had been charged for hotel rooms that had been prepaid. Her client hadn't noticed the double charge. Ross arranged for a refund of about $2,800. Such a savings shows the value of hiring a travel agent to act as the traveler's "guardian angel," she says.

Of course, most people aren't trying to herd a few dozen people to some remote location. For more routine trips, such as the yearly holiday flight to grandmother's house, the convenience and low cost of researching and booking on the Internet has drawn a huge slice of the travel market.

So are the nation's 100,000 or so travel agents headed for the same fate as blacksmiths and buggy-whip makers - near extinction? The US Bureau of Labor Statistics expects positions as travel agents to decline through 2012 and warns those considering the profession to expect "keen competition for jobs."

But balancing that are a couple of factors: (1) The travel market in general is expected to continue to grow, and (2) despite growing comfort with the Internet, some people are expected to still want personal service and expertise from another human being. Recognizing this, online travel agencies such as Expedia.com have expanded to offer bookings by contacting a real, live travel agent via its toll-free phone line - no computer needed.

"Service is what makes the industry," says Christopher DeSessa, an associate professor at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I., who teaches courses on travel and tourism. "It's when [customers] start getting to the high-ticket items that they need the expertise of a travel agent."

Johnson & Wales used to offer two- and four-year degree programs to become travel agents. Today, the programs are more diverse, reflecting the increasing need for many areas of expertise.

"When we first started, we were pretty much a travel agent program, but now we've broadened out," Professor DeSessa says. "We're trying to give them a feel for the whole travel industry" - from hotel management to cruise lines and tour operators.

Meanwhile, the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) is working hard to get out a strong "we're not dead yet" message. It's motto "Without a Travel Agent, You're On Your Own," appeals to travelers who want to know that someone will act as their advocate if something goes wrong.

Those who use agents aren't all computer-phobic senior citizens, either. ASTA points to statistics that show that 43 percent of its customers are between the ages of 35 and 54, and 33 percent are younger travelers, ages 18-to-34.

Travel agents are still big players in the market. According to a 2004 survey, they sell nearly 9 out of every 10 cruise packages, 8 out of 10 tours and tour packages, and about half of all airline tickets, hotel rooms, and car rentals.

But those percentages are likely to shrink in years to come, according to a November report from PhoCusWright, a research firm that tracks the travel market. This year, online bookings will represent nearly 30 percent of the US travel market, PhoCusWright says. And it projects that within two years they will rise to well over half of all bookings.

To defend its members' market share, ASTA is cosponsoring, along with Marriott International and the University of South Carolina, a major research project aimed at better understanding "the strategies, attitudes, and characteristics" of financially successful travel agencies. The results will be announced next year.

"Many travel agencies are surviving and thriving in spite of wave after wave of economic and political challenges," said Pat Moody, dean of the university's College of Hospitality, Retail, and Sport Management, announcing the project earlier this month. "This study will help identify the innovators and what makes them tick."

Meanwhile, travel has become a mainstay of Internet commerce. Airlines and hotel-chain websites are evolving into low-cost, full-service, vacation-planning sites. Online travel agencies such as Orbitz.com, Expedia.com, Travelocity.com, and Priceline.com gather airline tickets, hotel rooms, car rentals, and cruises into one-stop shopping sites.

Expedia, for example, touts the fact that customers save an average of $189 by booking their flight and hotel as a package. But they also continue to expand their offerings. Expedia bills itself as a full-service travel agency offering cruises, adventure travel (including special trips to historic World Heritage sites around the world), travel tips, even destination activities.

If you book a flight to Maui, you can book a shuttle from the airport to your hotel, a dinner cruise on the harbor, or a helicopter tour as well, says Kari Swartz, product manager for leisure travel for Expedia.com.

'We really do offer the whole trip. Our goal is to help people eliminate any potential stress" both while researching and taking the trip, she says. If someone planning a trip would rather talk to an actual person, they can call Expedia's toll-free hotline 24 hours a day. "There are still some travelers who prefer to talk with a person, and that's not a problem," Ms. Swartz says.

When hurricanes hit the Caribbean this past summer and fall, Expedia agents got on the phone to customers to help them rebook vacations, choose another destination, or cancel altogether. The company waived its own cancelation fees and urged its airline and hotel partners to do the same.

No matter how sophisticated its computerized online booking system becomes, "We will never, ever remove the human [element] from our business," she says.

That sounds a whole lot like what old-fashioned travel agents offer. And at a lower cost. Expedia, for example, charges $5 to book an airline flight. The average ASTA member charges $27.

For Ross, who has been in the travel business for four decades, it's the close relationships built with customers that keep them coming back. The children and grandchildren of some of her early clients are coming to her to book their trips now.

Some people just want her recommendations on great vacations. She asks them to set a budget and comes back to them with possibilities. Along with a wide variety of complex family vacations, she's developing a new area: tour groups for women. Some are widowed, single, or divorced. Others have husbands who would rather stay home.

"A lot of women want to travel and have the means," Ross says. "But they don't want to travel alone." She matches them up in small groups of no more than 16 people.

She went to Egypt earlier this month - to do research. "If you're a good travel agent, you have to keep yourself educated all of the time," she says. "There's nothing better than firsthand knowledge."

That lets her be honest with clients about what they will find in some exotic locale. She might tell them, "It's terrific, but it smells." Forewarned, they'll still have a great time. "You go because you want to explore the world," she says.

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