After almost 20 years of losing market share to OTAs and
suppliers’ direct-booking websites, recent research by Phocuswright suggests
that the traditional travel agent’s share of bookings has leveled off as the
agent role has evolved into a more expert level of service.
The report, "U.S. Online Travel Overview Report Fifteenth Edition," shows money spent on bookings in the U.S. grew
5% for the fourth straight year in 2015, totaling $341 billion. The total is
expected to grow at a strong pace (6%) for the next two years, with bookings
reaching $381 billion in 2017.
Of the total sum, 28% came from traditional agencies and
travel management companies (TMCs), a percentage that has flattened out after
declining for several years, according to the report.
Agencies and TMCs are expected to maintain that 28% share
through 2017 (the remainder of bookings was made through supplier websites,
OTAs and central reservations systems/walk-ins).
“It’s largely a matter of maturity of the online market,”
said Phocuswright senior research analyst Maggie Rauch, one of the report’s
authors. “It’s been many years now that travel has been shifting
and travel buying has been shifting to online, and we just see that shift
The business that remains for agents, Rauch said, “is
primarily business travel and the most complex leisure trips.” That business
remains strong, allowing for a level booking share going forward.
Most consortia, hosts and industry groups reported 2015
to be their best sales year in recent memory. Anecdotally, 2016 is shaping up
to be even better, according to Ann Chamberlin, president of the National
Association of Career Travel Agents (Nacta). She said Nacta’s members are
reporting very strong sales so far this year.
Jennifer Michels, ASTA’s vice president of
communications, said the Society’s membership is also reporting solid sales, as
it has been “every quarter for the past several [quarters]; we hear optimism
and growth in sales across the board.”
Chamberlin also said agents are getting better at booking
the complex leisure trips that help maintain their booking share in the U.S.
“The agents continue to evolve to be able to book more
sophisticated types of travel, which keeps [clients] coming back,” she said. That leads to positive word-of-mouth about agents and
more potential business, Chamberlin added.
According to Phocuswright’s report, cruise lines also
played a role in leveling off the market share of agency and TMC bookings.
“After a few years of holding traditional travel agents
at greater length, they’re pulling them in a little closer, paying better
commissions,” Rauch said, which the report called “a closer embrace by cruise
Rauch also said the leveling of agents’ booking share was
aided by “cruise lines not being quite so determined to attract first-timers.”
While the new-to-cruise customer has always been
desirable, she said cruise lines are putting more effort into courting repeat
“Agents are strong with repeat cruisers, and agents are
also great to turn to when you’re trying to sell a bigger trip with more
components included in the booking,” Rauch said.
Nacta’s Chamberlin said cruise lines “very much want a
place at the table with travel consultants, whether it’s selling longer cruise
product, more sophisticated itineraries or filling out their higher end.”