"Hello. May I help you?"
Like Shakespearean English, the words sound both foreign and familiar. Words spoken over the phone, straightforward and sincere, almost jolly. It had been a long, long time since I had called a company and heard a live person on the other end of the line.
More typically, when I call customer service -- a very generous term in most of its uses -- I'm ordered to remain on the line because the menu options might have changed. Of course, I'd rather just press zero, bypass this nonsense and speak to an operator, but sadly zero is less and less frequently an option.
At times like that, I wish I could slam the phone down and have a proper and well-deserved grown-up temper tantrum, but I'm denied even that small satisfaction. Unfortunately, I didn't buy insurance for my iPhone. I simply press the star button to return to the main menu.
So you can imagine my surprise when I called my local travel agent to ask about a trip to Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and a human being answered the phone. I quickly looked behind me to see if I was being "punk'd," but no, it was an actual person, asking if she could help me. Me! I felt like a celebrity.
As a traveler and a tour operator, I turn to travel agents, one of the last bastions of true customer service in our increasingly offshore economy.
What's more, unlike the websites that offer the same handful of hotels and tourist traps, they have time-tested suggestions that I don't see anywhere else. Travel agents know the cozy spots, the less-crowded side streets and the best times to travel.
They have recommendations on what to wear (long sleeves in some Italian churches, and leave the six-inch stilettos in the hotel when on a walking tour). They warn to make sure to carry change in your pocket when using the WCs in Europe -- and, most importantly, they can tell the uninitiated what WC stands for.
For my personal travel needs, I rely on the convenience and expertise of travel agents. As a travel professional representing a national escorted tour operator, I rely on travel agents even more.
The tours my company offers cater to a mature crowd of seasoned travelers: baby boomers who both reminisce about Woodstock and ponder their stock options, retirees enjoying their pensions (and the retirement money they stashed under the mattress). These are the lucky ones who are able to enjoy their retirement and do what most of us dream about: travel the world in comfort.
If I'm working with an active adult community or a lively senior center, I always ask my audience if they work with a travel agent. I find that many of the active adult communities I work in have several travel agents in my audiences. Some are semiretired but still organizing international departures after their dawn-patrol tee time.
Travel agents are field agents with fine leather shoes on the ground and their fingers on the pulse of the traveling American.
This army of travel experts is invaluable to a tour operator. I may offer an escorted tour with fabulous meals, professional tour guides and sightseeing included, but agents know which clients are a perfect match for what we offer. All across the country, whether in brick-and-mortar retail stores or home offices, they're on the phones booking, negotiating and saving money for their clients.
Although I work in the travel industry, an expert in my own right, when I do have the chance to vacation, I don't even lift a finger -- not one, not even my pinkie -- to arrange my own flights, meal plans or any of the other bells and whistles that trip-planning entails.
Why would I? I have my own personal travel planner at my disposal. I seek out the services of an agent for the same reason I go out to dinner: Yes, I can cook, set the table and clog the drain while doing dishes as well as anyone, but sometimes I get more enjoyment out of letting professionals do all that.
Or better yet, by having someone else make all the arrangements leading up to the enjoyment of a cocktail at an all-inclusive in the Caribbean. My vacation begins as soon as I hear, "Hello, may I help you?"
Travel agents don't rush me. When I start thinking about vacation, I often find myself overwhelmed with possibilities. My friendly travel agent patiently listens as I prattle on about where I've been and what I'm looking for, my complicated relationship with my mother -- you know, the usual stuff.
A bartender might offer a frozen pina colada to help bring a brief respite from life, but my astute travel agent makes sure I have several pina coladas included in my island getaway for two.
Come to think of it, I'll whip up a pina colada right now in anticipation of my next holiday.
Ah, my pina colada is OK, but you know what would make it better? If someone else made it for me. If I were on an island instead of sitting in my kitchen in New Jersey, looking at the dirty dishes in the sink.
I do enough all day, every day. I work, pick up my daughter from all her activities, try to remember which day the recycling goes out.
I pay someone to clean my house and walk my dog. I buy boxed meals that are delivered to my door with packaged ingredients. Why would I spend hours on the internet planning a vacation when a trained professional can take care of that for me -- and maybe even get me an extra day pass to Typhoon Lagoon in Disney -- for free?
If something goes amiss, I can call and they'll take care of it. Why would I spend hours acting like an expert just because I have access to the internet?
Want to enjoy your next vacation? Call a travel agent, and when they say, "Hello, may I help you?" all you have to do is say, "Yes, please."
C.R. Caruso is a travel professional and pina colada aficionado.