How Are Travel Agents Faring In The War of Public Perception?
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Within every industry you will find the good and the bad, but there are a few professions that get an almost unfair rap, including doctors, plumbers, auto mechanics and, of course, travel agents. However, with all of the locations to visit, sites to traverse and regulations to learn, there’s no denying that travel agents put in a lot of work to create an unforgettable experience for their client. Is the perception of travel agents improving and what level of success are today’s agents having educating the general public that they are more important than ever in the land of impersonal OTA bookings?
“Yes, I think the perception of travel agents is improving as the market offers more travel products,” said Nick Salmen at Remarkable Journeys, based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. “With the increase in product offerings comes a higher demand on travel agents. Agents are now expected to know the world over. Because frankly, a consumer may be choosing between a week-long tour in Spain, a river cruise in Asia, or a week at an all-inclusive in Mexico. A travel agent needs to be able to compare and contrast the price and relative benefits of each option for the consumer.”
Alex Sharpe, President & CEO of Signature Travel Network, agrees that the perception of travel agents is improving. “Consumers are frustrated with both the amount of information and the misinformation out there,” said Sharpe. “They need someone to make sense of it all. Our industry is getting more, and better, press, and I'm excited that ASTA will also be launching an even broader consumer initiative on why everyone should use a travel agent.”
Virtuoso chairman and CEO Matthew Upchurch said that the battle for perception has been a slow and steady climb but one he sees his company, and the industry as a whole, as being on the winning side.
"“When we changed the company name to Virtuoso 16 years ago, our goal was to build a consumer brand that would create awareness and, more importantly, preference for working with a travel advisor," he said. "At the time, that seemed like a lofty goal given the onslaught of OTAs and the predicted demise of traditional travel agencies. But we’ve kept a constant drumbeat within the media, and today the demand for advice, access, advocacy and accountability is stronger than ever amongst consumers."
Upchurch said he not only sees it in the numbers, but also in his advisors' interactions. They see it from the client everyday that the human touch puts a vacation over the top.
"In 2015, 57 percent of the advisor growth within our network came from existing agency members and our network sales last year saw an 11 percent jump to $15.5 billion," he said. "That alone indicates that the consumer’s perception of travel advisors has materially changed for the uninitiated and only strengthened with those who already know the benefits of collaborating with an advisor. Consumers crave authentic human connections, not only in their travels but in the planning process, which means travel advisors are well poised for continued future success.”
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With today’s tech-savvy travelers and travel agents, Marisa Costa said that it’s social media that is helping to improve consumers’ perception of the industry. “These agents are building lucrative businesses based on happy clients who are eager to share their appreciation for their agent with friends, via both word-of-mouth and social media,” said Costa, Director of NEXT, a Protravel International and Tzell Travel Group initiative in New York City.
At the same time, she admits that new travel websites and apps are coming out all the time, which make the landscape even more difficult for a traveler to navigate. “Tech-savvy travelers who might have planned their own trips in the past are realizing that turning to an expert advisor who can sort through it all for them can save time, money and hassle,” she said.
While today’s consumer may be able to successfully book a flight to, say, Machu Picchu on their own, Connie Miller of Travel Leaders in Omaha, Nebraska said that they need more. “They need advice, tips and guidance,” she said. “They need to know the recommended vaccinations, when the Inca Trail is shut down and that the trail often sells out months in advance. In today’s world of conflicting online information, the use of a professional will ensure that the money they are spending for that trip of a lifetime will exceed their wildest dreams and not become their worst nightmare.”
In addition to social media, the internet has also allowed consumers to share their opinions on the trip and the travel agent, increasing the pressure to provide satisfactory trips. “The fact that everyone can share their opinions, regardless where they are or who they are, has made having happy customers a requirement if you want to survive,” said Andrea Gaviria, marketing manager at Ibiza Summer Villas.
One of the important aspects of improving the industry’s rep is to educate consumers on the responsibilities of an agent.
“Most of the people I interact with are under the impression that they will pay more for travel agents and that they can just handle it all themselves,” said Jill Petrowsky, owner of Cruise Planners. “This is just not the case. Not only can agents take on the brunt work for the client so they don’t get overwhelmed looking at every option online, we also provide them with professional service. Most times travel agents can find the same deals, if not better. Each agent has several vendors they have access to and can always figure out which vendor will have the best package for their client.”
While things are improving, Eric Grayson says that there is still a long way to go. “They have a lot to offer, but consumers tend to be drawn to technology,” said the founder of Discover 7. “However, once a person gives personalized travel advising a shot, they tend to stick around, at least in my experience. I think the future is bright for all sectors of the travel advising business. We just have to keep getting the word out.”
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