Why travelers use agents ... and why they don't

By Nadine Godwin

Sometimes travelers don't say what you think they are going to say.

Take these stats from the YPB&R/Yankelovich Leisure Travel Monitor 2006: When it comes to buying personalized products, such as travel, only 28% of agency clients said they are inclined to listen to experts, whereas 40% of nonagency clients said they prefer getting expert advice.

The alternative choice was "following your own instincts," which 72% of clients said they prefer as against 60% of nonclients.

A few other YPB&R findings also make the reader wonder if the wrong people are patronizing agencies -- or if agents are missing the boat with some population segment.

Researchers say it is statistically significant when 64% of clients have a high level of confidence in travel guidebooks (vs. 47% for nonclients) and in travel brochures (54% vs. 37%). However, client and nonclient levels of confidence in the recommendations of an agent do not differ to that degree. Fifty-seven percent of clients express confidence in travel retailers, but 47% of nonclients do the same.

It takes some of the sizzle out of these counterintuitive research results, but, to be precise, it must be noted that agent users are defined as individuals who bought at least one air/hotel package from a retailer in 2005, whereas nonclients include those who booked only one trip component with an agent.

Seventy-four percent of clients said they would use an agent for a booking in the next 12 months, and 17% of so-called nonclients would do the same.

How the Internet ranks

When asked to name the most convenient way to arrange travel, 39% of clients put agents at the top of the list, as did 9% of nonclients.

Perhaps more tellingly, 52% of clients said the Internet is the most convenient way to arrange travel, not all that different from the 63% of nonclients who said the same about the Internet.

In addition, when asked where they get the best prices, a hefty majority (72%) of nonclients pointed to the Internet, but then, so did 55% (or more than half) of agency clients; only 28% of clients gave agents credit for the best prices.

No wonder, then, that the numbers are similar for online bookings, with 79% of nonclients and 59% of clients buying on the Internet in the previous 12 months.

All of which tells us something we already knew -- the divider between clients and nonclients is not a fine black line but a gray haze -- and raises a familiar question: What do clients see in their agents anyway?

The top attraction is the agent's product knowledge, which was cited by 53% of respondents when they were asked their reasons for using a traditional agent.

Nearly half, 48%, cited convenience as a factor. And, in descending order, clients listed the following factors: price, 31%; friend's recommendation, 27%; uncomfortable booking on one's own, 24%; and preference for the personal touch, 24%.

The numbers remind us of something important: In the agent arena, it is not all about price.

Where agents shine

Fifty-eight percent of clients also reported agents were very or extremely influential as the travelers made trip choices. That influence was highest (63% at the very or extremely influential level) when clients were selecting their hotel or resort.

Responding to another question, structured differently, 52% of clients said agent recommendations were extremely or very important to the accommodations choice, and 26% of nonclients, as defined by this survey, said the same thing.

Other results also reveal just how important the hotel/resort choice is for travelers. When asked to name the most desirable factors in a travel experience, safety of the destination was No. 1 over all considerations of pricing and services, cited by 85% of clients and 79% of nonclients. But, by the clients' reckoning, hotel security is in second place, cited by 77% (vs. 67% for nonclients).

All travelers said price, location and service features were important to the hotel choice, but clients and nonclients diverged to a significant degree on one point: Eighty-four percent of clients said the likelihood of an upgrade was extremely or very influential to the choice (vs. only 65% for nonclients).

All travelers also assigned roughly equal values to various Web site features, with one exception: the ability to preview a room location. Whether it's about security or comfort, 85% of clients rated the preview option as extremely or very desirable (vs. 66% for nonclients).

The research also allows for a number of generalizations about differing travel habits and attitudes: Clients prefer guided tours (40%) more often than nonclients (24%), but nonclients are more likely to prefer a destination they have visited before (69%) than are clients (52%).

As to a place none have visited: Twenty percent of nonclients are interested in space travel aboard a vehicle orbiting the earth (vs. 14% for clients).

To contact the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to Nadine Godwin at [email protected].

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