Travel Agents Aren’t Back. They Never Went Away!

Travel agents back

By Kelly Monaghan

Recently, the New York Times’ Travel Section splashed across its front page the banner headline “Are Travel Agents Back?”

It was a welcome article for those in the industry, I suppose, because it recognized the not inconsiderable value that knowledgeable travel agents provide their customers. It also represented a somewhat belated acknowledgement from a major media outlet that, no, not everyone books travel on the Internet and that, in fact, there are some travel experiences that you will simply never discover by trying to book online.

The article began by recounting what you and I realize is a pretty common experience: “The V.I.P. treatment at the Cheeca Lodge and Spa in the Florida Keys last month hadn’t come with an extra cost. In fact, Ms. Griffin said, she paid about $100 a night less than the standard rate for her room. And the deal wasn’t the result of hours of tedious online research either. She had finagled her savings the old-fashioned way: through a travel agent.”

So, all in all, the article was good news for us. Hopefully more and more people are getting the message. Still, I was irked by the underlying assumption of the headline: that travel agents has somehow “gone
away” and were only now fighting their way back by providing superior service and better deals.

The author, Michelle Higgins, wrote of “years during which all signs seemed to be suggesting that travel agents would soon go the way of telex operators. And it’s true that the numbers are stark: During the industry’s peak years of the mid-1990s, there were about 34,000 retail locations booking trips. Today, there are 14,000 to 15,000…In 2009, alone, in the throes of the recession, bookings through traditional agencies plummeted by 23 percent.”

I have long been dismayed by the conventional wisdom put out by so many in “the media” about our business. “Travel agents are a dying breed.” “Everyone books online now.” “If you want the cheapest fare,
just go to the ‘Net.” All of it nonsense, of course, but long accepted as true by reporters who would have known better if they had done some, you know, reporting.

So I responded to the article by writing the Times. Here’s what I had to say:

Travel agents never went away, they just became invisible to the media. Here’s what happened.

Those 34,000 retail locations Ms. Higgins mentioned existed because the airlines required travel agents to maintain commercial premises as a condition for selling airline tickets. Then airlines stopped paying commission to travel agents. Many travel agents asked themselves, “Why do I need to pay this high overhead when I can sell high ticket,  high margin products like cruises and tours from home?”

Many agencies closed their doors and went home. What I like to  call the home-based travel revolution was born. These home-based  travel agencies, which are legally separate businesses from the ‘host agencies’ though which they funnel bookings, comprise former agency owners, former agency employees, and a growing number of entrepreneurs who started their careers working from home. Most of them don’t sell airline tickets, preferring to concentrate on cruises, tours, and bespoke travel consulting. That’s where the money is.

The idea that you can always get the best deal on the ‘Net has always been a myth, albeit a myth that the media was more than happy to nurture. Kudos to Ms. Higgins for getting it right.


Travel Agents Aren’t Back. They Never Went Away! was last modified: October 23rd, 2015 by Kelly Monaghan