Needed: Fewer travel agents, more ‘travel advisors’

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.

Before the 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 process.

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 phone.

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 (availablehere), 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 expected.

“We can book any hotel you want, but we don’t know (your chosen city) so can’t make any recommendations,” she said.

Not helpful.

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 first-person advice.

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, 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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