Local travel agencies weather online travel
By Bruce Edwards
STAFF WRITER | April 29,2012
Adam Caira / Staff Photo
Scott Milne of Milne Travel poses for a portrait at the Milne Travel office in Barre Vermont on Thursday, April 26, 2012
Scott Milne says it’s not just about getting the best price for his customers but also the best service.
And Milne has some expertise in that area, having not only survived but grown his business as consumers abandoned traditional travel agencies and joined the do-it-yourself online travel boom.
“Pretty simple, treating customers like they like to be treated, treating employees like they like to be treated,” Milne said. “Probably gotten a little bit lucky with some big customers that have had faith in us.”
Milne Travel is experiencing double-digit sales growth “that looks like it’s going to continue for the next few years for us,” Milne said. He added that growth is offset somewhat by higher expenses.
Not to be underestimated, Milne said, is the agency’s partnership with American Express, which gave the Barre company a nationally recognized brand.
Started by Milne’s mother, Marion, in 1975, the company is the largest Vermont-based travel agency. Today, the company has 10 retail locations in four states. Milne, which also has several locations that serve corporate clients, has nearly 100 employees.
“Most of the markets we’ve grown into have been through acquisitions,” Milne said.
Over the past 15 years, the boom in online travel culled the number of travel agencies around the country and Vermont is no exception.
Today, there are 14,000 to 15,000 retail travel agency locations in the United States., compared to 34,000 during the industry’s peak in the 1990s, according to a report from PhoCusWright, an industry research firm.
Last year, traditional agencies sold $94.6 billion in travel products, accounting for one-third of the $284 billion U.S. travel market. That’s the second straight year of growth and a rebound from the dismal recession year of 2009 when sales plunged 23 percent. PhoCusWright is projecting the travel agency business will increase through 2013, exceeding $100 billion.
Travel agents make their money booking packages — air, hotel, cruise etc. So, when airlines stopped paying a fee to travel agencies, most travel agents now charge a handling fee for someone who books airfare alone.
Travel agents in the state who survived the onslaught of Web-based travel have banked on a core of repeat clients. Now, they say they’re also seeing a return of former customers and new customers tired of spending hours online trying to get the best travel bargains.
“I had one I just booked today, I haven’t heard from in three years,” said Corinne Kopec, owner of Killington Travel.
She said the client got “fed up” spending time booking online, sorting through a myriad of options.
Kopec, a 25-year veteran of the travel industry, said she has a personal relationship with her clients that can’t be duplicated with an online travel service.
Hank Lee, who runs Gateway Travel in Brattleboro, had much the same story to tell.
“The folks that we do business with are people who we’ve done business with for years,” Lee said, “and wouldn’t think of ever doing it any other way because we’ve taken good care of them over the years.”
He said someone booking a package trip — air, hotel, rental car or cruise — might have to spend hours online finding the best deal. Lee said it gets more complex when someone is visiting several cities or countries.
Lee said if there’s a problem, “we’re going to stand behind it, and if they need to change their plan or something goes wrong, we’re here for them.”
Travel agents say most of the time they can at least match, if not beat the price found on online travel sites, and save customers a boat load of time in the process.
Even travelers who use an agency haven’t abandoned Internet travel sites completely.
“What we find now is a lot of people use the Internet for some initial checking,” Milne said
While online travel sites like Expedia and Hotels.com can offer significant savings, the experience has left many consumers weary.
“For price-focused travelers, those changes may be a welcome development. But the extra work travelers have to do to compensate for the work travel agents once performed is extracting a toll on traveler satisfaction,” according to a report from IBM Global Business Services.
The IBM survey of 2,000 global travelers found that 20 percent needed more than five hours to search and book their travel online. More than half of leisure travelers and nearly 40 percent of business travelers required more than two hours to book their trip online.
Vermont travel agents say they have a wealth of knowledge at their fingertips that’s not easily available simply looking online and they know their clients’ preferences.
“I have a client that travels to (Washington) D.C all the time,” said Kopec, who started her career with Pan American World Airways. “I know he never, ever, wants to go through LaGuardia (airport); I know he always wants an aisle seat; I know there are specific airlines he doesn’t want to travel.”
If someone hires a professional to handle their legal or financial affairs, she said it also makes sense to hire a professional to make their travel plans.
It’s not just leisure travelers that travel agencies count on.
Travel agents say 40 percent to 50 percent of their business comes from business clients.
At Milne Travel, 45 percent of its business is corporate clients, including Central Vermont Public Service Corp., GW Plastics in Bethel and the state of New Hampshire. Milne also is the travel agency of record for Major League Soccer and the minor league North American Soccer League.
As its largest season ticket holder, Milne also arranges bus tours to Boston Red Sox games.
Lee said the niche market is an area that has given a boost to bricks and mortar travel agents.
For Gateway Travel, Latin America is one niche. The other is rail excursions through Brattleboro-based Rail Travel Adventures.
“If you have a specialty, if there’s a part of the world you’re really familiar with as an agent,” Lee said, “or if you’ve done a lot of travel to that particular part of the world, that’s something that people will come to us for.”