The Art of Travel Planning: The Value of Travel Advisors Today

With the rise of the online world, do-it-yourself travel planning has become the norm. So, is it any wonder that the travel agency industry has had to evolve drastically to survive? For example, gone are the days when travelers depended on travel agents to book airline flights. Gone also are the commissions agencies received from airlines for those reservations. This and other trends have revolutionized the travel management landscape.

Technology Changed Everything - Almost

Technological innovations caused seismic changes in the travel industry. Now, travelers perform many travel management steps previously restricted to travel agents. The biggest adjustment was consumer-facing online booking of transportation and accommodations. So, not only did revenue from airline commissions dry up, but this also put a stop to many relationship-building interactions with consumers.

Another significant change was the explosion of online travel information in the form of blogs, reviews, and many other types of content. As a result, consumers have not only been enabled to book their own travel, but they can do so based on information they may otherwise have only received from a travel agent.

While new technology may seem to ring the death knell for travel agents, the profession also benefited from these innovations. For example, new capabilities via computers and mobile phones have streamlined communications between travel professionals and companies providing travel services like airlines, hotels, and cruise lines.

Just as importantly, modern communications have made interactions with clients much easier. Such capabilities have led to client expectations for 24/7 customer service from travel agents. While this may not have been an expectation in the pre-internet travel industry, now travelers want the peace of mind of around-the-clock customer service availability.

From Agent to Advisor

In response to the sweeping technology changes, the travel agency industry has fended off obsolescence by cultivating a core strength: deep experience and expertise. While the average consumer can easily book transportation and accommodations online for simple trips, making more elaborate travel plans might be riskier.

Take the example of Paul, an avid golfer who envisioned a bucket list trip to Scotland to play some of the world's most famous courses with a group of long-time friends. "I suppose I could have made my own arrangements if it were just me. However, after a little research, I realized it would be worth the cost of engaging an expert with experience in this sort of specialized group trip," he said. Ultimately, Paul and his seven friends played six courses over the ten-day trip, including the famed British Open courses, the Old Course at St. Andrews and Carnoustie. "It was the trip of a lifetime. ", he said. "It went off without a problem, which I credit to the excellent itinerary and arrangements provided by our travel advisor. From the time that we arrived at the airport, all of the logistics and reservations were handled."

A View from the Front Lines: Jim Bendt – Pique Travel Design

Paul's use of the word "advisor" points to the evolution in the travel agency industry to a greater focus on advisory and customer services. This point was echoed by Jim Bendt, owner of Pique Travel Design in Minneapolis. With fifteen years of experience in travel, Jim entered the industry during a time of enormous transformation. "What I liked about it at that time is the industry was going through a change where it was less of a transactional model, which is what the internet is today, and it became much more of a professional service model."

Jim acknowledged that consumers today have the ability to accomplish many travel tasks on their own, but that does not make travel professionals irrelevant. "What the internet doesn't do is give professional service and advice. I guess the best analogy I would use is that there used to be stockbrokers. There are now wealth advisors. So, travel's the same thing as where there used to be travel agents, but now we're travel advisors bringing more of that, professional consultancy aspect of things."

Even when there is so much travel information on the internet, Jim thinks a travel advisor can help sort out what really works. "What we find is, there's a portion of the population that loves to dream and anticipate travel but doesn't love the logistics of doing all that research trying to sort through what reviews are accurate and which ones aren't, and they would prefer to work with a professional who can help guide them through that."

He added, "Travel advisors are really meant for people that appreciate working with somebody and having that human connection. What we like to do is listen and understand what our clients are like, what their travel DNA is, and then have conversations about the possibilities. A lot of times, they come to us without an idea, but we can help design amazing experiences they didn't know existed."

Jim noted that the COVID-19 pandemic rocked the travel industry, but most agencies survived. Now, there's a post-COVID travel surge. "Looking at all my peers that are out there, I was expecting that we would see a lot of people get out of the business. Yet, I don't know of one travel agency peer that has closed. And if anything, all of us now are seeing rampant growth."

One change Jim observed in the transition from agent to advisor was the introduction of fees paid by clients. Previously, few travel agents charged fees. Their revenue came exclusively in the form of commissions from travel providers. Now, most travel advisors also charge a fee that Jim argues is a good value. "What that does is it covers our upfront time to work with our clients to design that initial itinerary, but that's the only upfront fee that they pay. And then, the remaining portion of the trip is compensated by our hotel partners that we work with. "

As for future trends, Jim foresees more technical innovation, but he's confident the role of the travel advisor will remain strong. "I love it when there's always something new, and the pundits say that that's the end of the travel agency industry. Artificial intelligence, which is all over the news right now, and the way that we view things is technology is a good thing. I don't view online travel agencies like Expedia as competition because they offer a different service promise to clients than what we do. Same thing with AI. If we say, 'Hey, design an itinerary to Italy', and I look at them logistically and ask, 'Who would want to be bouncing around this much? That doesn't make any sense.' So, we think there will always be a need for a travel advisor since people want to have that human connection."

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