To the ears of Generation Z, travel agents probably sound a lot like rotary phones and VHS players: once-essential components of our world that have since become old-fashioned, and which are now used only by octogenarians.
With the rise of flight booking platforms like Skyscanner and Google Flights, finding cheap flights is easier than ever. Airbnb, VRBO, and Booking.com have simplified the world of lodging, and online travel publications and blogs are shining light on destinations once unknown to many. Once the indispensable bridge between the traveler and dream destination, travel agents seem to have become obsolete. But they’ve proven more resilient than you might think.
Rather than succumbing to the advance of online travel media and booking platforms, they’re adapting and continuing to provide value for travelers in the 21st century. If the rest of the travel industry is Staples, travel agents are Dunder Mifflin, the underdog that puts people and customer service first.
To try to figure out why one should use a travel agents these days, we spoke to Lisa Finnegan. Finnegan has been a travel agent for over 35 years, currently working at AAA (American Automobile Association) as a Safari Specialist. We discussed the roles of travel agents, how her role has changed with the COVID-19 pandemic, and the future of travel agents.
Are travel agents still as popular as they were 10-20 years ago?
I think so – we’ve never been busier! Although flights are still easily booked online, our clients feel more comfortable booking entire packages through us. I’m not sure about other travel agencies, but our service is part of your AAA membership, so clients take advantage of our expertise and savings.
Why use a travel agent in this day and age?
We have preferred partners that we work with for all cruises and packages that we book. All of those partners that AAA has contracts with, come with additional savings or added amenities/credits to enhance the packages we book for our clients.
What information can travel agents offer travelers that they can’t get from reading online travel blogs or publications?
First-hand experience is still the best sales tool for us working in the industry. Articles and blogs are great tools, but not always the most accurate. When one of our agents travels, we share our experiences — good and bad — with each other. Again, speaking from the perspective of a large US agency, we have not only our local agents’ travel input, but also our AAA national reviews and first-hand knowledge to rely on when guiding our clients for all things travel-related.
Has the role of travel agents changed in the past 10 years? Are people looking for different things?
Definitely. Ten years ago, there was a lot of comparison shopping, where saving money was the main objective. Over the last few years, and more so since COVID hit back in March 2020, clients are looking for added assistance, expertise, and an actual person they can speak to if their plans change or more restrictions come into play.
What is business like for travel agents during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020? Is anyone booking trips?
It was hell. Many companies were trying to figure things out at the same time as we all were, so phone hold times were extremely long. People were stuck all over the world, trying to get back home. Airlines cancelled flights left and right, so that just added more stress. Vendors/airlines/hotels all furloughed their staff and many closed temporarily. Of course everyone that we had booked, wanted their money back as soon as possible. That just wasn’t happening with many airlines, cruise lines, and tour companies, so clients were offered Future Credits. The refunds that we were able to secure took months to receive. As you can imagine, not many people were happy about any of this! I still have clients rebooking now with those Future Credits. As for new reservations — not during the initial six to eight months of the pandemic, but now yes.
Since borders reopened, have people changed the way they use travel agents? Asking for different services?
I think so. We receive lots of calls from clients that are “thinking about traveling” and ask for the current restrictions to global destinations. We only assist those clients if they are AAA members and if they book through us. We have also found that more people are requesting hotels than they did previously (instead of AirBnb or VRBO – both of which we don’t book). I think that’s the “clean” factor, as people are more comfortable staying in a traditional hotel than in someone else’s home.
What is the biggest threat to your industry these days?
Honestly, the length of time this [the COVID-19 pandemic] has gone on is the biggest threat. I’ve been in this business for over 35 years and so many of my travel colleagues have either taken early retirement or changed careers. If this goes on much longer, I feel we’ll lose even more qualified agents, as it just doesn’t make it financially feasible to stay in a business where you’re not making enough money to pay the bills. As an industry, we’re all still learning how to navigate the new normal.
As learning about destinations online becomes easier, and self-booking becomes more intuitive with tools like Skyscanner and Google Flights, what do you think the role of travel agents will be 5-10 years from now?
Great question! Yes, it is definitely easier to self-book, but many people don’t feel comfortable booking on their own. Plus, we as agents, have many times toured/cruised with different vendors and can give information based on first-hand experience. Many of my colleagues now charge service fees (similar to any consultant) for their expertise. I feel like this is going to be more prevalent in the future and if I weren’t working for a membership company, I would charge as well. Sure you can book on your own, but if you want the expertise or recommendations — it’s going to cost you!