Consumer media discover that travel agents do still exist

By Johanna Jainchill
Suddenly, everybody loves travel agents.

Over the last month, three major national publications and a network TV show have all published veritable odes to retail travel sellers.

First it was Forbes magazine’s three-part, online series, “Why You Need a Travel Agent,” which began on Jan. 20.

That was followed by a CNN.com article titled “Travel agents know something you don’t.”

Last week, the New York Times ran a piece in its Sunday Travel Section headlined “Is the Best Travel Search Engine Around the Corner?”

UpchurchOnTodayAnd it wasn’t only print media that were extolling the virtues of travel advisers: On Jan. 19, NBC’s “Today” show featured Virtuoso CEO Matthew Upchurch on its “Tips on when you should use a travel agent” segment.

This “great month for travel agent exposure in the consumer media,” as ASTA CEO Tony Gonchar called it, came months after a September segment on ABC’s “Nightline” titled “Travel Agencies Flying High.” 

It featured Liberty Travel’s New York office, declared that there were 14,000 agencies active in the U.S., and reported that 94% of them expected to make a profit this year.

“We are seeing the message moving,” Gonchar said. “From 2011 being the year people asked if there were still travel agents, to 2012 being the year of ‘How can I find a travel agent?’”

It is not clear exactly what has caused this sudden uptick in agent appreciation, but many factors seem to be contributing to the trend.

Several people in the travel industry attributed the rise in appreciation for travel agents to the rash of recent bad news in travel, ranging from the recent Costa Concordia grounding to the Iceland volcano that wreaked havoc on air travel to Europe in 2010 and the snowstorms that pounded the U.S. last year.

Michelle Morgan, president of the Signature Travel Network, observed, “When the consumer press is highlighting negative issues relative to travel ... we believe it sparks a desire by the traveling public to seek the advice, expertise of a professional to take care of them before, during and after the travel.”

Bryan Leibman, president of Frosch Travel, said, “Travel is complicated. People realize there are lots of potential complicating factors on their trip and lots of different options to explore. They’ve become accustomed to different advisers in different parts of their lives and see a lot of value to that. They realize there is geopolitical craziness and that things happen, and they want to feel they’ve got somebody they can depend on.”

Gonchar said that a good selling point for travel agents has always been ASTA’s slogan, “Without a travel agent, you’re on your own.”

“It’s a safety net, an insurance policy; it has value,” Gonchar said of using a travel agent. “We are seeing more and more that there is way too much going on in our lives to find the time to do the kind of personal research required to plan and build a trip effectively and have the confidence you are doing it correctly.”

Another factor is a more potent media machine within the travel industry, spearheaded by Gonchar as one of the top priorities in his first year at ASTA’s helm. Besides being quoted in several consumer travel reports this year, ASTA appears quarterly on a Lifetime Channel show to talk about the value of using ASTA travel agents.

“We now have a program to strengthen existing relationships and cultivate new ones with consumer press,” Gonchar said. “We have a proactive outreach program that has a list of consumer media contacts that will be ongoing. ... That hasn’t been done before. We’re taking a much more proactive stance.”

Virtuoso, the upscale travel consortium whose agents are often profiled in consumer articles, has always made consumer media outreach a priority.

“If you take the basic principle that travel planning is personal and collaborative and not transactional, you have reputable data ... to support it and you hire talented people to help communicate it to the media, you will see results,” Upchurch said. “And while the goal is to promote our travel advisers as subject-matter experts, the reality is that any story that positions travel advisers well elevates the entire profession.”

Upchurch said media efforts are years in the making, and he can’t always know why a topic resonates at any particular time.

“Getting one bigger story does help generate interest with other media,” he said. “Recently, we’ve helped place our members in stories for CNN Travel and Oprah.com, among others. High-profile exposure does make the phone ring, and it helps cement relationships with existing clients.”

Another factor, some say, is that the online travel agencies have in many ways become a victim of their own success: The seemingly endless amount of information on the Web and growing number of places to look for and book travel have led some consumers to express increased levels of dissatisfaction with online travel sites.

Roxanne Boryczki, president of AZ Trails Travel in Fountain Hills, Ariz., found that many new-to-agency customers ended up at her door after being inundated with online information that they could not validate.

“I’ve noticed over the last couple years an influx of new clients saying, ‘I researched this on the Internet, but I don’t trust it, and I don’t know where to go,’” she said. “I think people have discovered that when something gets complicated or if they have a problem ... they want somebody they can relate to and trust with this investment. Somebody who will make it simple for them.”

Kate Urekew, executive director of travel management marketing for Circles in Boston, said the glut of online content eliminates the time-saving that many people expect to see by doing it themselves.

“There’s no time-savings for folks to have to dive through it and try to validate and vet all the different content points out there,” she said. “It’s almost overload. We definitely see folks looking for somebody to cut through the clutter and provide them an accurate point of view and recommendations based on their personal needs.”

Then there is the fact that after so many talking heads had sounded the death knell for the travel agent over the last decade, agencies that have survived are quite successful and have earned a loyal following.

“For many years, people assumed we were a dying industry,” said Frosch Travel’s Leibman. “Those who are here are very strong and vibrant and growing organizations. They wouldn’t be doing so if they weren’t providing value to their clients. This is a recognition of the travel agents’ abilities.”
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