Charlie FunkHave you noticed it too? Travel professionals are resurgent.

In the 2007 marketing plan we gave each of our suppliers, Sherrie and I stated that we believed online bookings that did not involve a live travel professional had peaked and traditional agents would be more involved in vacation decisions going forward.

Sure enough. It took a while, but travelers did begin seeking assistance of travel professionals again, a phenomenon noted by a fair number of reporting entities including CBS, CNN, Fodor's, Budget Travel, the New York Times and the Washington Post. Both PhoCusWright and Forrester Research detected steady growth in those leisure travelers who increasingly turn to travel professionals for guidance.

And to clarify, I'm referring to those travel professionals who help translate clients' ideas and dreams into reality in the form of a vacation that meets or exceeds expectations, not those who are primarily a booking- and payment-processing entity, a toll booth on the highway to a vacation.

Travelers are returning to travel professionals for four key reasons:

  • Knowledge: Travel professionals have specialized knowledge of destinations, things to do, places to see, the best places to dine and more.
  • Time: Consumers increasingly place a higher value on their time, where a five-minute call to a travel professional often avoids literally hours of mind-numbing online searches.
  • Price: Travelers are more aware than ever that a travel professional has the same rates offered by a supplier.
  • Advocacy: It turns out things go wrong on a trip: a missed flight, an unpleasant experience, an emergency during the trip and more snafus that require assistance. More and more, travelers have learned that without a travel pro, they are on their own.

These are the professionals who know they add value. Like the one who gives clients his unlisted phone number, charges a $100,000 fee to join and a $25,000 annual retainer. But they are also the ones who take calls at home, at 3 a.m., who take the time to counsel a client on what to do from the time they take the suitcase from under the bed until they put it back.

I've written here about the growing sense among this group that they must be in control of their business: how they go to market, how they develop and maintain their business model and which products they sell. Many have "taken a stand" to make their business profitable, even if it meant walking away from long-standing supplier partnerships.

Similarly, growing cadres of agency owners have decided that they don't have to do business with every person who calls or stops by. With increasing frequency I hear of and see reports from travel professionals telling of experiences with clients who just aren't a good fit for their business.

Many share common characteristics, the most frequent being a conversation that begins with, "What's your best deal on ..." I often wonder just how cheap a bad vacation has to be before someone can overlook all the problems and issues that arise from being price-driven, looking for the "best deal." More than a few agency owners tell me they have found that these bookings are typically very high-maintenance with zero loyalty.

Another frustration is working to find the best vacation value for a client only to have them book it direct with the supplier. More and more agencies have begun charging fees: some that are standalone and are not applied to subsequent bookings, others that can be applied.

Perhaps the best example most recently involved a client who questioned the use of a travel agent when the same price was available direct and took exception to being charged a fee to make an airline reservation. This was, it would turn out, one of those final-straw situations.

In this case, the agency owner took the time to craft a 474-word email response to this "client" that touched on all the reasons mentioned above. It clearly set forth the benefits of using the agency's services. The part that I liked best was the closing. With the owner's permission, I quote it here:

"All that to say, if you are price-driven, and not motivated by good and reliable service or a corporate culture to go above and beyond for every single client, then I'm not the right travel agent for you anyway. We are grateful for the opportunity to have served you in the past, and we wish you the very best success and enjoyment in your future vacations."

That's right. The agency fired the client. Have you ever wanted to do that? It seems sometimes there just isn't another way to handle the situation.

What really prompted this column was the sense that travel retailers are obsolete, unnecessary, passe. Specifically, I was writing a response to President Obama's comment on the Sept. 15 edition of ABC's "This Week," apparently in an effort to explain stunted economic and job growth, suggesting that technology had eliminated so many jobs: "Technology. If you go to -- a lot of companies now, they've eliminated entire occupations because they're now robotized. We don't have travel agents. We don't have bank tellers."

I was all set to refute this latest statement. I had some surgically honed witticisms about who was handling all the planning for all those trips that the POTUS and family take.

But then it occurred to me: The president was partially right, because in the context in which "travel agent" was used it might well be a disappearing species indeed. We're no longer merely travel agents; we're professionals. I'm going to write my first letter to a president, thanking him for giving us travel professionals the opportunity to set ourselves apart from those all-but-extinct travel agents of old.

Charlie and Sherrie Funk own Just Cruisin' Plus in Brentwood, Tenn., and are members of the CLIA Hall of Fame. 


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