Returns for Travel Agents
ABBY ELLIN, July 3, 2007
Luntz, an artist’s representative in Manhattan who flies six
to eight times
a year for work, is one of the converts.
years of booking his travel online, through Web sites like Orbitz,
Travelocity, Expedia and Priceline.com, he has gone back to using
they still exist, those people who until the mid-1990s booked about
percent of airline tickets and had as much power as God but then seemed
of extinction. In fact, many travel agents — or travel specialists,
as they are
now known — say they have seen an increase in business in the
last year or so.
big reason, they say, is that travelers say they do not have the time
energy to scour the Internet for the best deals. And they crave a
touch that a disembodied voice in a call center cannot provide. Many
returning customers offer variations of the tale Mr. Luntz, 60, told.
two years ago, he said, he bought plane tickets on Priceline.com.
before he was to leave, he caught a vicious cold. He spent hours on
he said, trying to find someone to help him change his flight. But
unsuccessful and ended up throwing the tickets away. “Going
to the Internet is
an absolute nightmare,” Mr. Luntz said.
is when he called his former travel agent at the Tzell Travel Group
Manhattan. “She’s available for phone calls. She returns
calls,” he said. “They
take really good care of me, despite the fact that I’m not General
most amazing thing is that for the price of a Starbucks coffee for
girlfriend and me, I have someone on the other end that can help me,
to a Web site that can give me no response.”
Kay, a spokesman for the Travel IndustryAssociation, a trade group
in Washington, said travel agencies had realigned in the face of competition
from online booking. “Travel agencies have gone back to their
roots and focused
on expertise,” he said.
is not to say that online travel booking is on the decline. Henry
Harteveldt, a travel analyst at Forrester Research, said about 77
the nearly 141 million American adults who use the Internet and take
one trip a year will buy their tickets online this year, up from 62.4
in 2005. He estimated that 64 million people buy all their travel
he said, “as the airline centers have scaled back their call
it’s harder to get help from the travel providers themselves,
finding a travel
agent who is knowledgeable and takes the burden off the customer is
valuable than ever.” He said bricks-and-mortar travel agents
outsell online travel agents for most airlines and hotels.
Atlas Travel International, a travel management company with headquarters
Milford, Mass., that works with business and leisure travelers, sales
has grown 60 percent from 2005 to 2006, said Elaine Osgood, the chief
executive. The Travel Store, in Cincinnati, has had a 50 percent increase
business over the last year; the company recently hired two more employees
help answer the extra calls, many from former customers, said Deborah
travel consultant at the shop.
you say to them, ‘You were a customer a while back. What happened?’
say, ‘I went on the Internet and I’d find out the hotels
are not what they say
they are,’ ” Ms. Morgan said. “Or, ‘It takes
too much time.’ ”
Liben, the chief executive of Tzell Travel, a corporate and leisure
travel agency with 21 branches across the country, said his company
sell about $700 million in airline tickets this year, compared with
million five years ago.
some of our clients leave and go to the Net?” he asked. “Yes.
But a great
percentage have come back because it’s 9 o’clock at night,
you’ve just missed
your flight, you call Travelocity and see what they’ll do for
you, and there’s
no one there. If you show up at the Ritz-Carlton and there’s
a problem in your
room — go call Priceline. No one there. People want service,
responsible who will answer their problems in a crisis. That’s
corporate travel companies do.”
agencies said they had taken note and were trying to improve customer
service. In May 2005, for example, Travelocity officials said, they
Customer Championship, which includes a team that contacts travelers
their trip should unforeseen problems arise, like potentially confusing
2004, Priceline began offering published flight prices in addition
“name your price” fares. This year, it began working with
Zagat to offer hotel
reviews, photos, maps and video tours. “The area of expansion
information,” said Brian Ek, a company spokesman in Norwalk,
many travel agents closed up shop or consolidated after Sept. 11,
others found innovative ways to stay afloat. For many of them, that
persuading corporate clients to use their services rather than the
Joseph, the owner of Joseph Travel Services in Macon, CA., which
caters to business travelers, said his agency lost about half its
after Sept. 11. To save the business, which has been in his family
years, he moved into a smaller office, scaled back to four days a
began promoting his company to corporate executives. “I showed
them that their
employees should be outsourcing their travel arrangements instead
of making an
online booking that could take an hour,” he said.
worked. Today, he said, sales are about $1 million more than they
year, and he expects them to continue climbing.
Carmicle, the president of the national accounts and direct imports
division at Brown Jordan International in Louisville, Ky., said he
did not go
anywhere without calling Mr. Martin. He said he learned his lesson
2000, when he was bumped from a flight from San Franciscousing a ticket
bought on the Web. “I needed to get back for a birthday party,
but I got stuck
for a day and a half and I missed it,” Mr. Carmicle, 33, said.
course, nothing in life is free. Travel agents, who lost their airline
commissions in the mid-1990s when airlines first capped them and then
generally charge from $10 to $75, depending on the transaction. Some
charge a consultation fee, which can then be used toward the purchase
ticket or package.
they also offer perks. Agents have given customers cellphones, itineraries,
maps and a 24-hour ear in times of crisis.
couldn’t do my international travel online,” said Mr.
Carmicle, who often
flies to China. “I’d be crazy to attempt to.”
clients said they wanted help booking more complicated, more expensive
trips, especially ones involving international travel.
the consumer is making a more expensive choice, more complex and high
risk, they’re not just so inclined to push a button,”
said Jack Mannix,
president and chief executive of the Ensemble Travel Group, an organization
1,000 travel agencies in the United States and Canada.
a huge amount of data on the Internet,” Mr. Mannix said, “but
there’s a knowledge base between someone’s ears that just
can’t be replicated,
regardless of how much research you do.”