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Why Use a Travel Agent?
Exerpts from New York Times
article in July 2007

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Happy Returns for Travel Agents

By ABBY ELLIN, July 3, 2007

Gene Luntz, an artist’s representative in Manhattan who flies six to eight times
a year for work, is one of the converts.

After years of booking his travel online, through Web sites like Orbitz,
Travelocity, Expedia and Priceline.com, he has gone back to using a travel
agent.

Yes, they still exist, those people who until the mid-1990s booked about 75
percent of airline tickets and had as much power as God but then seemed at risk
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.

One big reason, they say, is that travelers say they do not have the time or
energy to scour the Internet for the best deals. And they crave a personal
touch that a disembodied voice in a call center cannot provide. Many of the
returning customers offer variations of the tale Mr. Luntz, 60, told.

About two years ago, he said, he bought plane tickets on Priceline.com. The day
before he was to leave, he caught a vicious cold. He spent hours on the phone,
he said, trying to find someone to help him change his flight. But he was
unsuccessful and ended up throwing the tickets away. “Going to the Internet is
an absolute nightmare,” Mr. Luntz said.

That is when he called his former travel agent at the Tzell Travel Group in
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 Motors. The
most amazing thing is that for the price of a Starbucks coffee for my
girlfriend and me, I have someone on the other end that can help me, as opposed
to a Web site that can give me no response.”

Allen Kay, a spokesman for the Travel IndustryAssociation, a trade group based
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.

This is not to say that online travel booking is on the decline. Henry H.
Harteveldt, a travel analyst at Forrester Research, said about 77 million of
the nearly 141 million American adults who use the Internet and take at least
one trip a year will buy their tickets online this year, up from 62.4 million
in 2005. He estimated that 64 million people buy all their travel offline.

But, he said, “as the airline centers have scaled back their call centers and
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 more
valuable than ever.” He said bricks-and-mortar travel agents continue to
outsell online travel agents for most airlines and hotels.

At Atlas Travel International, a travel management company with headquarters in
Milford, Mass., that works with business and leisure travelers, sales revenue
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 in
business over the last year; the company recently hired two more employees to
help answer the extra calls, many from former customers, said Deborah Morgan, a
travel consultant at the shop.

“When you say to them, ‘You were a customer a while back. What happened?’ They
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.’ ”

Barry Liben, the chief executive of Tzell Travel, a corporate and leisure
travel agency with 21 branches across the country, said his company expected to
sell about $700 million in airline tickets this year, compared with $300
million five years ago.

“Did 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, someone
responsible who will answer their problems in a crisis. That’s what top
corporate travel companies do.”

Online agencies said they had taken note and were trying to improve customer
service. In May 2005, for example, Travelocity officials said, they introduced
Customer Championship, which includes a team that contacts travelers before
their trip should unforeseen problems arise, like potentially confusing airport
terminal changes.

In 2004, Priceline began offering published flight prices in addition to its
“name your price” fares. This year, it began working with Zagat to offer hotel
reviews, photos, maps and video tours. “The area of expansion is in
information,” said Brian Ek, a company spokesman in Norwalk, Conn.

Although many travel agents closed up shop or consolidated after Sept. 11,
others found innovative ways to stay afloat. For many of them, that involved
persuading corporate clients to use their services rather than the Internet.

Kevin Joseph, the owner of Joseph Travel Services in Macon, CA., which
caters to business travelers, said his agency lost about half its bookings
after Sept. 11. To save the business, which has been in his family for 25
years, he moved into a smaller office, scaled back to four days a week and
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.

It worked. Today, he said, sales are about $1 million more than they were last
year, and he expects them to continue climbing.

Christopher 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 in June
2000, when he was bumped from a flight from San Franciscousing a ticket he had
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.

Of course, nothing in life is free. Travel agents, who lost their airline
commissions in the mid-1990s when airlines first capped them and then cut them,
generally charge from $10 to $75, depending on the transaction. Some also
charge a consultation fee, which can then be used toward the purchase of a
ticket or package.

But they also offer perks. Agents have given customers cellphones, itineraries,
maps and a 24-hour ear in times of crisis.

“I couldn’t do my international travel online,” said Mr. Carmicle, who often
flies to China. “I’d be crazy to attempt to.”

Many clients said they wanted help booking more complicated, more expensive
trips, especially ones involving international travel.

“When 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 of
1,000 travel agencies in the United States and Canada.

“There’s 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.”

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