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My love for travel started over a decade ago when I took a job as a travel coordinator for a local call center based travel agency. I was responsible for booking the incentive travel for our travel agents. I had to learn how to make travel agents happy and that was a major task. These are the people that know it all and I had to be one step ahead of them and know it better; I was the travel agents’ travel agent. Back in those days, when you wanted to book travel you only had a few options. You could book it yourself by calling the hotel or airline directly, use a travel site like Travelocity, or call your travel agent. Many travelers opted for the latter.

When it came to cruises, tours, any trip that required a more complex itinerary, or came with a higher price tag, you typically got a travel agent involved. It wasn’t because you couldn’t do it yourself; it was because you didn’t want to do it and you had options. The travel agent was the person with all the knowledge. They could provide recommendations and even had insight into specials that you didn’t have access to – and that resulted in a direct impact to your wallet. They were the go to source for family vacations and group vacations – when more than 5-7 people were traveling. Who wanted to worry about aligning flight schedules, trying to find the best deal, and worrying about what to do when you got there? I sure didn’t and that was why travel agents were so important and successful.

Within the last 10 years or so, travel agents have taken a backseat to travel portals such as Priceline, Hotels.com, and Kayak. The selling point for these massive search engines? Well that’s easy: 1. one stop shopping, 2. comparison pricing, 3. tons of info and 4. you can “do it yourself”. I have personally been a fan of these sites and felt there was high value in being able to visit one website that enabled me to completely plan my trip from flight to excursion. As with everything, these sites have started to cloud the web. Here recently, I visit them mostly for the information. I no longer trust that I am getting the best deal and I go straight to the source. Everyone is looking for a deal and most of these travel sites will claim they have the best rates. How do you really know you are getting the “best” deal? Well, you don’t. To be honest, I find these travel sites be to a bit overwhelming. Every hotel doesn’t look great and every location is not worth visiting; although the pictures will tell a different story.

Although I am not in practice, I still maintain my travel license and credentials and have for the past 8 years. As I reflect back, I remember explaining to my clients the value of one hotel over another. It wasn’t by comparing hotel ratings or reading through several hundred travel reviews. It was either by personal experience, acquired knowledge of the area, or information captured from other reputable travel sources (back then we had travel books like Fodors Travel Guides); it was truly “old school”. If you were looking for a recommendation, I wanted to steer you in the right direction. My clients trusted me to help them decide between an oceanview versus an oceanfront or whether it was worth paying the extra money to be centrally located. I had questions like: Which hotel would be best for groups? Is there a cruise fit for couples that are 50 and older? What options do I have in regards to excursions? What can I do while I am there? What is the city known for? The questions were endless and I still believe that travel agents are the best source for this information. They work for you and with you.

In 2009 alone, travel agent sales via traditional agencies dropped a whopping 23 percent. However, In 2011 travel agencies experienced their second consecutive year of growth. During the travel industry’s peak years (mid 90’s) there were approximately 34,000 retail locations up and running and today, there are about 14,000. Many believed that travel portals would wipe out travel agents, but that has yet to happen. In fact, travel agents booked $95 billion in travel sales in 2011 – approximately 1/3 of the overall $284 billion U.S. travel industry. According to the American Society of Travel Agents, travel agents still book 85% of all cruises, 70% of all tours and packages, 50% of all airline tickets, 30% of all hotels and 25% of all car rentals.

What is the state of the travel agent? They are back baby! I would say they are in the process of re-establishing their place in the travel market and they are growing at a steady rate. In the near future, I can see travel agents continuing to focus on niche travel including, tours, infrequently traveled/visited destinations, cruises, group travel, and other specialty travel, like spa vacations. There are still some areas consumers are not comfortable with booking. I can quickly book a trip to Miami, but if I am visiting Australia for the first time, I am definitely calling my travel agent! Well, I guess that would be me :). We are all guilty of jumping to the next best thing if it means it will be more convenient for us (travel site vs. travel agent). In this case, convenience doesn’t always pay off.

I will end with disclosing a myth that I have heard many times over my years in this industry. You do not pay more by going through or using a travel agent! There revenue comes from the vendors. Some agencies may charge an additional fee here and there but this is just to compensate for the airlines that no longer pay commissions. Many of them charge you nothing over the cost of the trip and due to their relationships with certain hotels; they can actually get you a better deal. In addition, I have always loved the fact that I could pay for my trip over a period of time. Truth be told, many agents have the hook up. Let me explain…many have “insight” and it is their job to get you the best bang for your buck. They have the connections, the information, the visibility, etc. into the travel world and industry. They notice things when you don’t. I can go on and on listing the value of my fellow agents so…

Give them a try the next time you are planning your anniversary trip or spa vacation with the girls. Just because you can do it, doesn’t mean you always have to do it yourself.

Shanna Jones

Shanna is the co-founder and editor of Urban Swank. She focuses on food and travel.

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