An recent experience got me thinking about the state of the travel industry today – specifically, the changed circumstances facing travel agents – and how they need to evolve if they are to survive.
Internet, comparing hotels in distant locations meant either writing letters
seeking brochures on their properties or making long-distance phone calls –
which often meant incurring larger phone bills – then making your best educated guess about what you'd actually find.
Finally making reservations at the hotel you’d decided upon meant repeating that
Enter the Internet.
Now, it’s possible to check
several hotels and their rates without even getting out of your pajamas, and
to make reservations without ever talking to a human being or even picking up the
But we’ve all had the experience
of seeing something on the web, making a decision based on the property’s web
page – whether that’s a hotel, restaurant, or attraction – then finding the
reality isn’t anything like the pretty pictures and luxuriant descriptions.
Social media sites can be helpful
but, as I laid out in a booklet I published (available
here), using social media effectively takes work. And even when one puts in
the work, it’s still a bit of a crap shoot.
So, when planning a trip to Europe and having had good
experiences with travel agents in the past, I thought I’d seek out one particular travel agent’s advice
on hotels in the city I’d be visiting. Her response was not what I
“We can book any hotel you want,
but we don’t know (your chosen city) so can’t make any recommendations,” she
Anyone who is reasonably
Internet-savvy can book any hotel they choose on line. What I was looking for –
and not finding – was someone who knew my destination and could offer
Before my first trip to London in
1987, I had a travel agent who knew the city, got to know a bit about me, then
made recommendations that fit my circumstances perfectly. I wanted something
safe, convenient to the Tube and, even though I was on a fairly tight budget,
not too humble. The hotel he recommended was perfect for my circumstances, but
he wouldn’t have known that if he didn’t have first-hand experience with the hotel and with his client. As it was,
he visited London regularly and kept up on the state of a number of properties.
If I recall correctly, he even said I should visit the vaunted Savoy Hotel and
perhaps have a drink, but noted that the hotel had grown a bit tired and was in
need of a refresh.
THAT is being a “travel advisor,”
and that is what travel agents must become if they are to stay in business.
Understanding it is impossible for
one person or even a small group of people to stay up on everything, a network
of travel advisors could fill the need nicely.
Imagine, for example, that a
client in Boston wants to visit Victoria, British Columbia and has heard
wonderful things about the Empress Hotel. The travel advisor can connect the
client with a colleague in Seattle who visits Victoria regularly and can offer
advice on the city, its activities, and its accommodations.
Were I in that position, for
example, I would recommend that the person definitely visit the Empress to
experience its charm and have a curry lunch in the Bengal Lounge before it is closed and removed as part of an upcoming "modernization" of the hotel by its new owners. Perhaps guests would enjoy
afternoon tea, and eventually a nightcap at the hotel bar. But as for staying
there, unless money is truly no object or there is an overriding reason such as
being a fan of 100-year-old hotels, I would recommend other hotels nearby,
including the Magnolia Hotel and Spa or the Hotel Grand Pacific. I’ve stayed at all three
hotels. All are within easy walking distance of virtually anything in central
Victoria but, in my judgment, the other two offer better value for the dollar than
the Empress (short of a special package or deal).
With the predominance of sites
like Hotels.com, Travelocity, Expedia, and hotels’ own sites, travel agents
absolutely must develop a first-person expertise in specific destinations, then
find a way to market themselves as expert advisors.
If they continue to simply
serve as booking agents, then the time will not be very far off when they will
go the way of manufacturers of buggy whips. They may have been very good at
what they did – maybe were even The Best – but failed to keep up with the
times, became irrelevant, and eventually went away completely.
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