I had an unusual experience last week: I stood before a class of 40 college students and asked how many had ever physically stood inside an actual brick-and-mortar travel agency. About four-fifths raised their hands.
Now, before you get all weepy with nostalgia, there are a few things to bear in mind: These were graduate students at Cornell's School of Hotel Administration, and they were older than a room full of undergraduates would have been.
But more relevant, only two of the 40 were from the U.S. The others were from China, India, Brazil, Hungary, Singapore, Greece, Thailand, Argentina and Ecuador.
It was a gentle reminder that while globalization and technology will level many experiences, the fact is we did not all start from the same place. Even with today's unprecedented connectivity, 20-somethings around the world move at different paces through different landscapes.
I had been invited to Cornell by William Carroll, who teaches hospitality marketing, to speak to his students about the evolution of retail travel. For most of the students, online travel agency (OTA) sales in their native countries represent a much smaller percentage of total sales than they do in the U.S. And in exploring with the students why this is so, some interesting perspectives on travel retailing emerged.
A student from Brazil said that trust, or rather lack of trust in the online shopping experience, is hindering the growth of Internet commerce there. But beyond that, he felt it was difficult for the OTAs to break in because travel agents are, for now, woven into the culture.
"They are part of the neighborhood," he said. In contrast to the way that many Brazilians feel about the Web, he said, their bond to travel agents is "a trust relationship."
That feeling was echoed by other students. A young man from Thailand said that a travel agent is part of a family's extended circle, "like a barber, like a doctor. You would know them personally. You would invite them to parties."
Two women, one from China, one from Singapore, nodded as he spoke.
"We get calls from our travel agent whenever she comes across a good deal," the student from Singapore said.
"And my agent will go to a great effort to make sure my family gets the best rates," added a young woman from India. "And travel agents explain all aspects of the trip completely. There's a reliability factor."
A student from Greece explained the enduring popularity of agents there: "If you want to get a ferry ticket to the islands, you have to go to a travel agent. The ferry schedules aren't automated. So while you're there, you book your vacation."
When Hungarians travel, even in Europe, they are concerned about language, a student said, and they look for packages where they'll be taken care of. "When the travel agent books, everything is settled."
For other Hungarian travelers, perhaps, but not for him. He doesn't like it when an agent's focus on packages replaces something more personal.
"I go to an agent because I want information," he said. "I miss speaking with people who are experienced. Today, sometimes they're not so knowledgeable. They just show you a TUI catalog. I can look through that myself. They need better training."
A second student from Singapore also looks for expertise and attention to detail when booking travel: "I get frustrated with the OTAs because I know what specific flights I want, and it's hard to get the booking engines to find and price those flights. And I want to make sure the baggage allowances will be the same on all the segments. Sometimes you just need to speak with someone."
It was fascinating to tap into the present state of retail travel in eight different markets, particularly from the viewpoint of tech-savvy 20-somethings in countries where OTAs have established a beachhead.
As I listened, I found myself sorting which of their perceived benefits of travel counselors were likely sustainable, and which might drop off.
Cultures will change and homogenize somewhat with globalization, so it's hard to know if Brazilian and Thai travel agents will always be part of a neighborhood's fabric. But if those connections continue to be truly based on a "trust relationship"? That's sustainable.
An agent who calls with good deals and works hard to get "best rates"? Sustainable.
Reliability and reassurance? Absolutely.
Getting business because you have the monopoly on ferry tickets? Not sustainable.
Relying on language insecurity and handing out brochures? Nope.
Expertise, and knowledge about minutiae such as baggage allowances? Yes.
Any U.S. travel professional who didn't embrace the sustainable practices above is already out of business. What's most intriguing about retailing in these other countries is that, unlike America, there is a generation in their 20s that knows about -- and cares about -- what travel advisers bring to the table.
I'll be curious to see if that interest endures as technology improves and, perhaps, a shared world perspective on the value of live travel counselors emerges.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.