Anyone with access the internet and a credit card can plan a vacation to almost any location in the world without help from a travel agent or professional travel guide.
Would-be vacationers can book flights, reserve their hotel rooms, make reservations at local restaurants, arrange side trips, and read extensive reviews of the locations, vendors and events related to their trip.
The traveler can make the arrangement directly or use one of dozens of travel websites. Either way, there is no need to talk to anyone or to visit a local “brick-and mortar” travel agency.
Yet, despite the ability to make travel arrangements without professional help, most vacationers still use travel agents, according to Travel Technology Solutions, a global company that develops technology for travel agents.
According to the TTS website, 77 percent of the total cruise bookings, 55 percent of air-travel bookings and 73 percent of travel-package bookings are handled by travel agents.
The main reason most vacationers use travel agents, according to Scott Milne, the president of Milne Travel, with locations in Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire and New York state, is because travel agents make what can be a very complicated and daunting task, simple.
“Good travel advisors help clients navigate the complexities of choice, get the best value, offer leverage, and save time while getting the best value,” Milne said.
A recent study by the American Society of Travel Agents titled “How Americans Travel” agrees with Milne. According to the study, which was released Dec. 7, “Consumers increasingly turn to travel advisors as sources of insider destination expertise.”
“Online travel booking sites such as Hotwire, Expedia, Priceline, Orbitz, Kayak and Travelocity offer travelers the opportunity to build their own itineraries and sidestep vendor-direct ticketing,” said Jennefer Teegen, the director of national marketing for Direct Travel, one of the largest travel companies in the country. In 2016, Direct Travel bought Vermont-based Accent Travel, and has offices in South Burlington and Williston.
“Our services ensure a completely personalized experience, meaning your vacation is tailored specifically to your special interests. Working with a travel advisor also provides the peace of mind of knowing that someone is working on your behalf before, during and after your trip,” she said.
“Twenty years ago, conventional thought was that brick-and-mortar travel agencies were a modern-day business version of dinosaurs headed towards an impending ice age. Most of our competitors thought the path to survival was to shed expensive locations and talented and expensive people and pretend you were some sort of tech-savvy agency or call center. About two-thirds of the travel agencies in the U.S. disappeared over the past decades, while we’ve expanded” Milne said.
Milne Travel has merged with or acquired almost 30 companies over the past twenty years. The Milne office in Manchester, New Hampshire, is the largest travel agency in Southern New Hampshire.
“In the early days of the internet, there was a lot of conviction from airlines, hotels, cruise lines and other travel and tourism suppliers that they could increase margins and reduce threats from competition by getting clients to buy from them directly and cutting out the middlemen, which would have been Milne Travel. It turned out not to be true.”
The internet did not kill the travel-adviser business, but did change it considerably, said Erika Ritcher, ASTA director of communications. One of the biggest changes, she said, is many travel agents no longer have business offices, but rather work from their homes and often specialize their work to a niche clientele.
Travel agent Rachael Lizotte is a perfect example.
She works part-time from her Essex home and specializes in vacation travel to Disney properties. She does not advertise and gets most of her business from referrals.
“I started helping friends and that turned into a business,” she said. Part of the reason she started her home-based business was so she could stay home with her young child, who is now eight. “My niche is Disney properties and Disney products, and I love it,” she said. Customers use her to help them with the “little details” they don’t know about but which, when handled correctly, greatly enhance their travel.
Even brick-and-mortar companies such as Milne Travel use home-based employees.
“With talent being so important, we’ve got a great support network for independent agents who need a host agency, and about half of our people work from home supporting their clients today,” Milne said.
Another change forced by the internet is agencies had to upgrade to survive.
“We do spend a lot more money on technology, everything from online booking tool technology and sophisticated meeting registration tools for our business clients, to six-figure phone systems,” Milne said.
“The internet has been great for us. We easily compete for clients all around the world today, where we used to only have a few clients far away from our office. Travel advisors are more efficient and able now than we were in the pre-digital, paper world,” Milne said. “It’s important to remind ourselves that travel and tourism is the largest employer of people on the planet. I don’t see that changing.”
“The good news for our members is that we’re seeing the U.S. travel market’s eighth consecutive year of growth in 2018,” said Zane Kerby, president & CEO of American Society of Travel Agents. “Americans’ interest in travel remains strong, and we’re confident that the U.S. travel economy will continue to grow.”