travel planning

Travel agents: a blast from the past?

Courtesy State Library & Archives of Florida, via Flickr Commons

Courtesy State Library & Archives of Florida, via Flickr Commons

(My story about Travel Agents first appeared on NBC News Travel)

It often happens on Mondays.

“I get calls from people who say ‘I spent all weekend online trying to work out a trip and you this is exactly what I need,” said travel consultant Sheri Doyle, the Seattle-based owner of Pacific Northwest Journeys.

Doyle specializes in creating itineraries for travelers heading to Oregon, Washington and British Columbia – and beyond – and finds that many of her clients are travelers frustrated by the overload of information on Expedia, TripAdvisor and other online travel sites and who want to be sure they are making good decisions about how to spend vacation days – and making good use of their time.

“It’s time versus money. A lot of people just don’t have the time or the expertise to plan a trip and do it well,” said Doyle, and they find value in paying a fee for the knowledge of someone who has actually stayed at the hotels, visited the sites and can negotiate good rates and extra perks.

Travelers who have found occasion to turn from the web to an agent include Alyne Ellis, a writer and radio producer from Washington D.C. who was planning a trip to Rome, Venice and Croatia with her husband, who had never been to Europe.

“We were overwhelmed with the logistics as we only had a few days in Rome and Venice and wanted to be near everything,” said Ellis. With the help of an agent, “We stayed in some of the nicest places ever and they all seemed very local in their feeling, at our request,” she said.

Karen Wickre, an internet industry veteran and founder of KVOX Media, relies on a travel adviser who can “see competitive pricing and scheduling,” when planning complex trips outside the U.S.

On a two week, multi-city visit to Spain and Portugal, Wickre and a friend figured chose the hotels and length of stays in each city, but turned to the agent to book flights, trains and airport transfers.

“All the travel documents and details were in one itinerary,” said Wickre, “They even have an app we could look at along the way. And it was easy to pay one bill to the agent.”

These experiences fit with the trend noted in a June 2016 report by the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA), which surveyed 14,000 U.S. households and found that, despite the rise of online travel agents (OTAs), in the previous year 22 percent of consumers booked through a travel agent, the highest share reported in the past three years.

In its most recent Portrait of American Travelers survey, travel industry research and marketing firm MMGY found the use of travel agents at a six-year high, with more than 9 million U.S. travelers planning to call on a travel professional to help book a trip this year.

“The higher the ticket price of the travel being purchased, the more likely they were to turn to a professional travel advisor,” noted the Travel Market Report in its review of the study.

“If anything, a good travel counselor is more relevant today than ever before,” said Grayce Walters, a travel agent with Maupin Travel which has a storefront in Raleigh, North Carolina.

“Ten years ago we were worried about the internet and all the sites that were popping up, but I’m seeing a lot more people – especially young people – who come to us when planning big trips,” said Walters, “Sometimes people say, ‘I can do it myself,’ but then they get into it, it gets complicated and they call me and are happy to pay a fee. When I save them money on the overall trip, I get a customer for life.”

Jack Ezon, a luxury leisure travel consultant with Ovation Travel, calls that the boomerang effect.

“There’s so much information out there that it makes it more difficult to do your own research now. So we serve as matchmakers, listening to clients, and finding what’s right for them,” said Ezon.

And, increasingly, ‘what’s right’ is also ‘special.’

“Younger millennials want the VIP treatment, to be on the other side of the velvet rope. Older millennials are planning honeymoons, having kids, and wanting to create unique experiences,” said Ezon. “And it’s not just Millennials, increasingly Baby Boomers and Gen Xers are acting like Millennials and looking for savvy travel advisors that can make things happen.”

 

 

Crowdsourcing vs Friendscourcing for travel advice

 

If, like most people, you turn to friends and family to recommend places to go and things to do, then consider this fresh batch of travel tools.

Several new sites and apps such as Trippy, Gogobot, Afar, Gtrot and Flymuch promise to help you plan the perfect trip by tapping into Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare and friends or expert sources on other online networks you already trust.

Each product offers its own twist — for example, added editorial content or local coupons and deals — but all are based on information-gathering that goes beyond the crowdsourcing model of sites like TripAdvisor.com and relies instead on friendsourcing, or tapping into advice from your network of friends, as the model.

“When crowdsourcing sites first came out, they were pretty revolutionary,” said Travis Katz, CEO and co-founder of Gogobot.com. “They offered a way for people to get opinions and advice from regular, everyday people, as opposed to an editor. But then the problem was there was too much information. You had to read through a lot of information to figure out what matched your need.”

While much of that content can be helpful, much of it is anonymous. So it can also be untrustworthy. “People have a huge incentive to create fake content that promotes their own business or criticizes a competitor,” said J.R. Johnson, CEO and Founder of Trippy.com. “In a friend-sourced model, your only incentive is to help your friend have an amazing experience in a location you are familiar with and passionate about.”

“For aspirational products, this makes perfect sense. Anything you do for fun is fun to talk about and you like to share great experiences,” said Carroll Rheem, director of research at PhoCusWright Inc., a travel industry research provider. But when it comes to travel, Rheem finds the blend of social networks and crowdsourcing an especially good fit.

“Because travel is so expensive and experiential,” said Rheem. “And because there’s a lot of information gathering and weighing and making decisions, and a need for relevant content.”

But while travel-themed, friendsourcing sites are proliferating, Rheem doesn’t see them replacing the larger, established crowdsourcing sites anytime soon.

“The average person takes one or two trips a year. So unless you happen to have friends who are extremely well-traveled, the feasibility of friendsourcing can only go so far when you think of the entire world of travel. However, these sites can add an extra layer of leverage.”

“Crowdsourcing sites offer breadth,” said travel analyst Henry Harteveldt of the Atmosphere Group. “Friendsourcing offers trust. I could see someone checking a hotel on TripAdvisor and using Gogobot to verify the hotel with friends, while also getting additional ideas for what to do.”

The bottom line is that “friends and family remain the No. 1 source for travel information,” said Donna Quadri-Felitti, a professor at the Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism, and Sports Management at New York University. “This idea of online friendsourcing is really just harvesting user-generated content that already exists. Everyone is trying to find the way to monetize the new social media platforms and add value to what those sites already do. Some of the sites are there; some, not yet.”

(This story originally appeared on msnbc.com Travel)