The travel agent is suddenly cool again.
Now that DIY internet bookings have become commoditised, and people are busier, travellers are going back to the professionals to manage plans for their next holiday.
One business witness to the trend is Virtuoso, an international network of luxury travel advisors.
In the past year alone, it added 100 new agencies, as well as seven new countries, bringing its total to over 800 locations in more than 45 countries.
It also has added 1000 new advisors in 12 months, bringing the network total to more than 16,000.
Speaking at the annual Virtuoso Week in Las Vegas, CEO and founder Matthew Upchurch discussed the revitalised image of the advisor, and took a dig at the technology gurus who forecast their demise.
Back when Expedia launched, Bill Gates predicted it would be the end of the travel agent. The Microsoft founder suggested people should throw away travel agents number because they wouldn’t need such a service when you could do it yourself online, Upchurch said.
In fact the Virtuoso boss remembers in 2001, not too long after Expedia listed, Travel Weekly released a survey asking travel agents, ‘How many of you would recommend your career to your friends and family?’
“85% said, ‘Run for the hills. Whatever you do, don’t become a travel agent’,” he said.
But advice, access, advocacy, accountability, value and time saving that Upchurch says makes an advisor indispensable.
He argues that it’s a combination that is impossible to replicate online. And while an individual may have some knowledge, they don’t have the insider access or support if something goes wrong.
“Expedia did take over the world,” he says, “but the world grew, and we grew, too.
“While so many things were replaced, true advisors thrived because we’ve always believed, the more tech we have, the more human connection we crave.”
Online meets offline
Upchurch says there are two parts to agent success.
“The first is the structural connection. The delivery system, the tools, the points, the pricing. All the things that make interacting predictable and efficient, that allows you to compete on speed, relevancy, and value,” he says.
“In some ways, the digital revolution coming to life. But then, there is the emotional connection. The heart, the glue, the empathy, the care. The connection that generates trust, confidence, clarity, and fun. That connection, which is intensely human.”
He says the “tipping point” for changing perception of the travel agent was in 2010 when new talent started to join the industry and work with the veterans of the field, saying both were “energised by the other”.
“And now, everyone’s on the bandwagon. The hottest new thing that never went away.”
The power of Millennials
Millennials can also be thanked for the comeback.
Despite being the first generation who only knew how to book online, they also understand and are willing to pay for the value in personal services such as trainers or a tailor. They want to pay for expertise.
This is reflected in the Virtuoso’s client mix, with Millenials and Gen-Xers the fastest growing client segment, up 13% in 2016 from 9% four years earlier.
And they’ve got money to spend. Virtuoso’s Millennial clients make over $200,000 a year, an income distribution only matched by the company’s Mature client segment (the generational older than the Boomers).
As the perception and role of the travel agent has changed, so has the format for meeting one.
Gone are bland office with shelves of brochures.
This year, Virtuoso held its first innovation awards for travel agency space, won by Select Collection in Stockholm. The agency has an in-house spa where customers are invited to come, relax and be pampered while they plan their next journey.
Another example is the travel design lounge at Travel and Transport in Omaha. Customers get “tripsy” while they enjoy drinks from the bar in the agency while planning.
Such experiences allow agencies to remain relevant and competitive, creating a fun and enjoyable process that turns the planning into a part of the trip.
* The author travelled to Las Vegas as a guest of Virtuoso.
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