Sunday, September 4, 2011

Travel Agents in the 21st Century

The staff at Holton Travel Inc.
 CT Post: Fifteen years ago, Nancy Yale launched a travel agency focused on sending newlyweds to popular honeymoon destinations such as Hawaii or Disney World. Today, Cruise, Resort and World Travel Inc.'s bread and butter comes from planning exotic trips to Nepal and the African veldt or persuading the Tower of London to open early for a private breakfast and viewing of the crown jewels.

"Everybody thinks we're dead," Yale said, sitting in her office in Fairfield while travel agents at desks in the next room worked out deals and agendas for vacations. "I moved my business to where I'm needed."

Travel agents have taken a bit of a beating lately. They've been named to lists of dead careers and even have been the butt of a joke on the Emmy winning sitcom 30 Rock, in which a character playing a homeless travel agent lived under a bridge with American auto workers, the CEO of Friendster and other obsolete professionals. But agents have survived, largely by catering to wealthier clients' needs. And they say the thing that nearly killed the industry -- the Internet -- is actually helping revive their profession as time-strapped people hire them to sort through the infinite maze of travel options.

Yale, who was named one of the nation's top 25 agents by Travel Agent Magazine last month, said there are fewer agents, and that's because this is no longer a volume business. When she started more than decade ago, Yale's focus was on doing as much business as possible as her earnings came from fees received from airlines for booking tickets, and she also sent newlyweds on a lot of honeymoons. But today, people can go online for those trips, she said.

Yale and some other agents have been able to survive and grow by not just booking tickets and hotels, but by creating a vacation and finding ways to expand the travel experience. Yale's client who booked the private Tower of London tour will pay $5,000 for that experience and is also booking a $28,000 safari for himself and his new wife.

Yale's fee comes from the hotels and venues, not from her customers and, because she belongs to an association of agents, she can get discounts for her clients that people booking for themselves would not otherwise get. Not everything is this expensive, she and other agents said. There are trips to resorts in Costa Rica or cruises for families of four that cost less than $3,000.

Eleta Jones, associate director of the Center for Professional Development at the University of Hartford, said overall employment trends for travel agents indicate there's going to be no change or little growth in the profession over the next few years. But that's far from dying, she said. "I think they're going to stick around with niche work."

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projected there would be 7,900 job openings for travel agents between 2008 and 2018, the most recent forecast.

Jones said the issue for existing agencies is to make sure they keep clients and continue to be seen as leaders in their field. But the industry is perched on the edge of another transformation, the agents said, which may provides new business.

While it's easy to book a flight to Chicago or Florida, once you start looking for something a little more involved, the eyes may start to glaze over. That's because there is too much information being thrown at would-be travelers.

"Type in Rome hotel and try to make sense of it," said Tom Armstrong, a corporate spokesman for the international tour operator Tauck, which is based in Norwalk. "There's just so much information out there."

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