When Heather Guilfoyle Solish abandoned a successful career as a lawyer with a New York hedge fund five years ago, she says her family and friends thought she was crazy.
Today, however, her business as a luxury leisure consultant with Classic Travel is thriving. And all indications are that it will continue to grow.
According to Travel Weekly's 2016 Consumer Trends Survey, the number of people using agents to book travel has jumped to 28%, up from 26% in 2015, and a full 10 percentage points higher than those who said they used travel professionals in 2014.
Travelers are also increasingly happy with the service they get from agents, according to the survey. Satisfaction ratings for booking with travel agents have improved each year, with 66% now either "somewhat satisfied" or "extremely satisfied," compared with 49% in 2012.
Industry experts cite a number of reasons for that trend: a spike in time-crunched millennials turning to agents, for example, to information overload and an overall increase in the quality of agents and the services they provide.
"The travel agency industry has refocused itself on selling our knowledge and expertise, so an individual traveler is much more likely to work with an agent who has been there, done that," said Travel Leaders Group CEO Ninan Chacko. "That's why innovative programs like our Agent Profiler that match travelers with specific agents based on everything from location to specialty niche have been so successful."
Solish said she believes social media, specifically Facebook, is also helping fuel the rise in the numbers of travelers turning to agents.
"People see agents are traveling, know the hotels, know the hoteliers. We can actually help them get a lot of added value," she said. "And there is so much advice on the internet, they don't know who to trust. I have some clients who read TripAdvisor all day and drive themselves crazy."
And while millennials are notoriously addicted to their devices, the survey shows they are far more likely than older travelers to have used an agent. Forty-five percent of travelers ages 21 to 34 said they had used an agent in the previous 12 months, compared with 31% last year. Only 28% of consumers ages 35 to 54 said they had used a professional travel consultant, and only 15% of those 55 and older said they had.
ASTA said its research shows similar trends. In a May survey, "Best of Both Worlds: How Travel Agents Save Consumers Time and Money," 22% of consumers said they had booked their travel through an agent, the highest share reported in the past three years. That figure spiked to 30% for millennials. What's more, 45% of the millennials polled also said they would recommend a travel agent to a friend or family member.
"At this point, consumers have tried it all. They've booked online, they've gone direct and they've used a travel agent," said ASTA president Zane Kerby. "This [ASTA] study dispels once and for all the myth that booking direct with suppliers or spending hours online yourself gets you a better deal or gives you a happier travel experience."
However, Douglas Quinby, the vice president of research for Phocuswright, said his group's numbers indicated that direct booking was continuing to grow along with OTAs. He said they have seen stabilization and some growth in agency sectors, though that growth is well below online growth. The trend, he said, is driven by the economy and the growth in more complex travel.
"Today's agent is a different animal from a decade ago," he said.
"This is something we saw clearly in our own 2012 study on agencies," Quinby said. "And I would expect that to hold true. [So] 2015 was a banner year, and 2016 is on track to be another one. Demand is high, and more U.S. travelers are not only taking more trips but doing more complex travel, more of the type of travel where hand-holding and support is valuable, which is what agencies have pivoted to over the past decade."
Solish said she made her career change because she was unhappy working as a lawyer and always loved to travel. But she admitted that in the early days of building her business, she often was hesitant to even tell people she was a travel agent. "I felt like there was stigma attached," she said.
Today, she describes herself as "super busy," and she said she is getting "a ton of referrals."
"I have clients who have been using me for a while," she said. "And, all of a sudden, their friends are asking."