Travel agents are becoming multi-channel. They create websites and take advantage of e-mail and social media. The smart agents do not allow technology to beat them, but to enable them, says Henry Harteveldt, travel analyst for Forrester Research.
Q: How has the industry changed over the past 50 years?
A: Until the advent of the Internet, the industry was completely paper-based and manual. Travel agents were like rabbis of old – they were “literate,” because they had access to the airlines’ reservations systems, which presented the information in code. They were trained in deciphering that information so that consumers could understand.
In 1994, the first travel websites came online. The consumer is literate now. We see the information in “normal” language. We no longer need to rely on the “rabbis.”
Q: How much has the industry contracted this decade?
A: Since 2000, there has been more than a 30% decline in the number of retail travel agencies.
Q: What are agents doing to compete with the Internet?
A: Travel agents are becoming multi-channel. They create websites and take advantage of e-mail and social media. The smart agents do not allow technology to beat them, but to enable them.
Smart travel agents have evolved from being ticket writers to business people serving different niches, such as a specific type of traveler or specializing in specific destinations or cruises. They’re saying, “I can’t be all things to all people, so what’s the right niche for me to have?”
Q: Do traveler’s booking habits continue to change?
A: We’re seeing growing consumer frustration with using the Web to plan and book travel, which hasn’t changed much from the way it was done 10 years ago. It hasn’t evolved. Most websites are very clinical in their approach. Eighteen percent of travelers don’t have a destination in mind, yet there are no major travel websites to inspire them to get up and go. Forty-seven percent of travelers are allowing their budgets to dictate where they go, yet no major website out there asks, how much do you want to spend?
A good travel agent asks you these questions before you start the shopping process. They’re becoming more like consultants. The may not be able to beat a major online travel site like Travelocity, but they can compete fairly for that business.
Q: Most travel agents are women. Why?
A: Women have traditionally had a very strong role in the travel industry, owning and operating travel agencies. Many started out in mom-and-pop businesses. As the travel industry changed and became more challenging, women were more willing than men to put up with those changes – including reduced compensation. Initially, some women were attracted to perks such as free or discounted travel. Now they are attracted to the flexibility it offers – some choose to set up home-based agencies, for example.
Also, travel is a very service-oriented industry. Women want to share their knowledge and passion for travel with their customers. The best agents are intellectually curious. They love helping their clients discover this big wonderful world.
Q: What’s the outlook for the industry?
A: The outlook is not completely bleak, but it is not an industry where anyone will ever get rich. I expect to see further consolidation of traditional agencies driven by the economics of this business. We will continue to see retail agencies shutter. Even independent retailers can’t afford the rent in some places.