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Travel Agents in the Internet Age

Nowadays, it just takes a few clicks to book that all-inclusive tropical vacation or that relaxing weekend getaway. But even with the conveniences of online travel booking, more and more consumers are trekking back to traditional travel agents.

Many travelers use the web, but have grown frustrated with its limitations. Booking online can be time-consuming, confusing, with no advice or guarantees.

Those in travel e-business are trying to correct the shortcomings. They're fighting back with the tools of technology. Their ammo will be website redesigns, better marketing and online customer service programs such as click-to-chat and click-to-call back.

In the meantime, many people are looking for more personalized, professional service with traditional travel agents.

Where the Dollars Come in

"[Travel] is still a very viable profession. It is an exciting profession," says Jacqueline Jamieson. She's president of a travel agency and chair of a national association of travel agencies.

She has noticed customers going back to travel agencies. "People are realizing the Internet is not the answer to everything," she says.

The explosion of travel sites makes it time-consuming for consumers to find what they want. The airline industry has become unpredictable. The high price of fuel has forced some airlines into bankruptcy. All these things make it difficult or risky to buy online. And there's no one to offer advice.

Jamieson says people are willing to pay a fee to get professional help to navigate through their many travel options. People are coming back to travel agencies because of service, experience and knowledge, she says.

Travel Agent vs. the Internet

Internet travel bookings are now leveling out, says Scott Pinheiro. Pinheiro is president of Santa Cruz Travel, Inc., a travel agency in California. He has been in the travel industry for over 31 years.

Santa Cruz is a university town, and Pinheiro sees a lot of young, tech-savvy students. They might do their own research online, but they're still seeking out professionals to book their travel.

He says he can get them a better deal about 60 percent of the time. Or he can show them an alternative that they didn't find online.

Denell Falk is the managing director of a specialized tour operator. She says there is a wide range of products and expertise offered by different levels of travel companies and travel agents. She says the order-taking style of travel agents who simply book tickets and hand out brochures -- without offering any expertise -- may be obsolete in five years. Agents like this face the most competition from Internet bookings.

Falk does not see the Internet as a competitor to her company, though. She says her clients are more comfortable working with a company that has in-depth knowledge of the areas, and is tried and tested.

She caters to consumers who don't want to waste their time on the Internet to save a few bucks and end up messing up their holiday. "We use our experience to match the right person to the right trip," she says.

In her experience, when people travel on more complex itineraries or to unfamiliar destinations, they often want the security of knowing that they are dealing with a reputable company. If there's a mishap with their online booking, there is no one to call for help, she says.

For example, if a customer goes online and books a budget tour in Africa, they may not get what they expect. "They could end up with a rickety van pulling up outside the hotel with no seat belts," says Falk. She says people are realizing that professional advice might cost a bit more, but the experience will be much better in the end.

She's confident that the travel service industry will never become obsolete. She believes people will always be willing to pay for good service.

The Future for Travel Agents

"There are so many facets of the industry that [job seekers] can first get involved in," says Pinheiro. The hospitality industry offers a wide range of career choices -- from working at a call center to guiding tours to organizing conferences.

"It's not enough to say, 'I love travel. I'll be a travel agent,'" warns Falk. "It's a fascinating career, but it takes the right type of person to fill the role."

She says successful travel agents must pay attention to details, keep abreast of changing products and destinations, offer good customer service and be self-motivated.

"You can make a living, but not easily," adds Pinheiro. He says travel agents are not the highest paid workers, but the lifestyle and travel benefits help.

He just returned from a sailing trip through the islands off Italy and Spain. It was a "seminar at sea" he attended with other travel agents as part of their continuing education. "There's nothing better than doing it first-hand," he says.

Jamieson adds that young people considering the profession should be comfortable with technology and interested in the world of travel. They should also have a passion for selling.

She recommends getting some experience traveling and paying attention to the experience of others while traveling. "Use this experience to your advantage," she says.

The travel industry is trying to encourage more young people to make lifetime careers in the travel agent business. Jamieson says many young people spend about five years in the career before changing professions.

Tourism Cares offers scholarships to students of tourism and hospitality. The organization is also involved in the hands-on rebuilding of devastated areas. It's a great way for young people to get involved and make contacts in the tourism industry.


Ten Myths About Travel Agents
Find out why this job is still in demand

Tourism Cares
Learn more about Tourism Cares' scholarships for tourism and hospitality students

American Society of Travel Agents
Find news and career information

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