Why Agents Love & Hate The Net

It seems you can’t get through life without at least one of those love/hate relationships: Alexis Carrington, Martha Stewart, OJ, or the latest challenge — the Internet. Sometimes I wonder how Earth managed to revolve without e-mail, instant news, spectacular travel deals and online porn. And sometimes I wish I’d never heard of cyberspace.

You’d think the Internet has put the whammy on traditional travel agents — just look at the declining numbers. According to the Airlines Reporting Corporation, in May of 2001, there were 29,412 approved retail locations in the US. In May 2005 there were only 20,283, a 31 percent drop.

To judge from all the weeping and wailing you hear in the industry, the Internet is a gorilla-sized competitor that will put every Tony’s Tours and Travel out of business.

But will it? Don’t hold your breath.

In one of my favorite movies, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” (please, no cracks), Ferris tells us, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” For a movie that came out in 1986, just as the Internet was emerging, it offers some pretty sage advice. Those travel agents who didn’t stop and look around are no longer with us, but those who took Ferris’s advice are flourishing.

The fact is, the Internet is our best tool and worst enemy all rolled into one. There are pros. There are cons. There are draws. Before pulling the plug, let’s look at what the Internet has to offer.

Pros — Information, literally at our fingertips. What used to take days to research can now be done in hours or minutes. Travel agents still spend a lot of time traveling, but we can’t visit every destination. The Internet lets us ”go” almost anywhere, anytime. The challenge is to evaluate those virtual visits, so we can make the best match for our clients. Of course, the information we get on the Internet is only as good as the information that goes in. As the geeks say, “Garbage in, garbage out.” A good travel agent can sniff out the garbage. That’s where our experience pays off.

Another plus: The immediacy of Internet communications makes all our lives easier. We can now see real-time availability and confirm reservations on the spot. And e-mail is great — no more do we hear (or speak) those dreaded words “But, I thought you said …”.

Cons — Pricing and marketing games. It is very difficult to compete with a business whose overhead is only 10 percent of yours, especially in an industry where a 10-percent margin is considered pretty good. People always ask how we do it, and the answer is always the same: We don’t just take orders, we consult — and we add value.

To be successful, a travel agent must bring something special to every transaction: perhaps a pre-departure hotel stay, a limo transfer, home delivery of documents, or a customized destination report. For many clients, the most important thing an agent can provide is psychological security (not an Internet strength): simply knowing that a live person will be there to help when something goes wrong.

Another con: Internet marketing games. It’s hard to discern reality from fantasy on your home computer screen. But take my word for it: Those beautiful people frolicking poolside with their tanned hard bodies are not going to be at your resort — ever. What are the actual, current conditions at this destination? Has the resort undergone a management change? Is the ship now scheduled for dry dock? Did the hotel get wiped out by a storm? A Web site is unlikely to give you this information; a professional travel agent will.

Draws — Educated consumers. People rarely come into the office anymore seeking advice about where to travel. Today’s consumers already know where, when and how they want to go — all courtesy of the Internet. Certainly, the Internet does a wonderful job of characterizing a geographical area, explaining its culture, and making general suggestions about what to see and do.

That’s a great starting point, but the consumer has to remember two things. First, the Internet appeals to the masses; there’s no way it can know that you favor fluorescent paintings on black velvet or that you’re looking for bargains on table linens in Jamaica. Second, what you think you see is not always what you get, even on the service Web sites. For example, the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania recently reported that 68 percent of American adults believe that travel sites like Orbitz and Travelocity are required to show the lowest airline price when, in fact, they’re not. Sometimes a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

My general advice to consumers is to do your Internet homework, then call your travel agent. Sure, we check out the same sites. We’d be crazy not to look at Orbitz, Travelocity and Cheaptickets — they are our competition. We also look at TripAdvisor but, unlike most general users, we know how to get the most from it. (Today’s tip: Ignore the first page of reviews and start on page 2.) But travel agents’ real value lies in knowing how to turn the power of the Internet to our clients’ own, personalized advantage.

Love it. Hate it. It really doesn’t matter how your travel agent feels about the Internet. It’s the knowledge and the service that count.

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