Last updated: 12:00 PM ET, Tue November 29 2016

Is Brick and Mortar Back?

“Everything old is new again.”

Could that tired saying be true of the home-based travel agent business? It looks that way, as some agents are trading their virtual businesses for brick and mortar locations.

Those locations might be a storefront agency or space in an office building, say a few host agency executives who’ve been seeing this development. And at least one agency—whose mission is to make agents visible once again on proverbial Main Street USA—is making a success of the brick and mortar agency albeit in a creative new version.

The return to physical offices—the sort that airline commission cuts, the rise of OTAs, 9/11 and the 2008 recession made, mostly, a thing of the past—is likely affecting only a small number of agents.

Still, it’s real.

“I’ve noticed recently that several of our new IC’s are deciding to open up actual professional office space instead of working from home,” said Claire Canady, manager, North Carolina Operations, for Travel Experts.

And Jackie Friedman, president of Nexion, has seen some home-based agents move to storefront locations, others to space within office buildings, and still others to rented space in “co-working” offices.

“There isn’t a major migration from working at home but it certainly is happening and it’s happening for so many different reasons,” Friedman said.

The importance of relationships is a mantra every agent knows—and an obvious reason for a move to a storefront location or office.

“Although working electronically is convenient, meeting in person is the quickest way to build a relationship; actually making eye contact can earn a client’s trust and respect in a matter of moments,” said Canady. “Having office space also means agents have a place to meet/host sales reps and even host an event at minimal cost to build their business.”

The founder of one brick and mortar agency had that face-to-face advantage in mind when he opened his Austin, Texas agency three years ago. But a larger issue for Keith Waldon, founder of the Departure Lounge, was travel agents’ visibility—or more accurately, their lack of visibility.

Waldon’s goal is “to get travel back on the street.”

He believes that when all agents work from home, the travel agent becomes invisible. “If you ask people under 45 where to find a travel agent, they can’t answer that,” Waldon notes. “It’s an issue we have to address.”

The way Waldon addressed the issue is with an unusual new business model. Located on a busy downtown street corner, the Departure Lounge combines a high-end travel agency featuring large touch screens showcasing destinations, with a wine/coffee bar offering gourmet sandwiches and snacks.

Friedman agrees that, “Obviously, the closure of brick and mortars has contributed to that lack of visibility.” And, she adds, for ASTA, NACTA and the Travel Institute—organizations she’s heavily involved in—“one of the hottest needs is for more visibility of agents.”

But there are other reasons for home-based agents to leave home.

Sometimes an agent may want to grow their business locally and, depending on where they live, believe they’ll be able to attract walk-ins, according to Friedman. Others may have a unique specialty or retailing idea that lends itself to a physical location.

There are also reasons literally closer to home, for home-based agents.

Some people, after all, just aren’t good at working from home. “Some agents can go into their [home] office, close the door and transform themselves into being at work,” Friedman notes. “Others can’t.”

Others may simply not have homes big enough to comfortably separate their working space from their living space.

“Another benefit [to a physical office] is you are easily able to specify the hours you are available,” Canady said. “Many agents working from home struggle with feeling the obligation to be available 24 hours a day. By having an office, the hours can be clearly spelled out to all and easily understood by clients. They know when to contact you.”

Then—sadly—there’s the old bugaboo about professional image.

“Anyone can claim to be an experienced agent, but having an office space in which to meet their clients may help the client feel they are a legitimate business and not someone selling travel as a side job from their kitchen table,” said Canady.

Friedman thinks the perception that home-based agents weren’t professionals came more from within the agent community “with the whole idea of outside sales agents.”

“There were those brick and mortar agencies that looked at these folks and put them in a box with no merit,” she said. “At that point, the outside sales agents, in other words, the home-based agents, were the minority. Now they’re the majority.”

Whatever the reasons for that hard-to-put-to-rest image—and whatever the business or personal reasons behind a home-based agent’s return to an office—it’s still wholly unlikely that physical offices will overtake virtual ones.

 “I do not believe we will see a huge return to the high-street agency, but for some, it is the best way to build their business,” said Canady.

Friedman agrees.

“My guess is we’ll never get to that point where there was a travel agency on every corner,” she said. “And for most agents, it doesn’t matter where they work.”