Travel in the age of Internet: How local travel agencies deal with the World Wide Web

Thursday, February 22, 2007

It's no secret that travelers have increased their use of the Internet for planning and booking vacations.

Predictions for 2007 say nearly 40 million U.S. households will book travel online, spending $86 billion on airline tickets, lodging, cars, intercity rail, cruises and packages, according to an article on forrester.com, an independent technology and market research website.

The effects of Internet use on travel agents have been both positive and negative. Some agencies have been hurt while others use it to their advantage

"We use the Internet all day long," said Barbara Rhein, a travel agent at First Class Travel in Cape Girardeau. "It's easier and quicker to look up information."

According to the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) website, both consumers and travel professionals benefit from the Internet. The Internet gives travelers the ability to do comparative shopping for attractive deals or packages. It also helps many travel agencies, hotels, resorts and other travel-related suppliers flourish by bringing in business through websites. The Internet has become such a significant part of the travel agency business that 98 percent of ASTA agencies subscribe to a consumer online service or Internet access provider to help cater to their customers' needs.

The website also said that almost 95 percent of agents have conducted online research and nearly 83 percent of ASTA agencies report they have booked directly on suppliers' websites without using their GDS or calling the supplier in question.

But there are many things that travel agents can do that the internet cannot. Agents can work with your personal preferences and provide insight on locations and lodging, saving you hours of surfing the internet for the perfect "discount" deal.

"We've been to many of these places, so we're sitting on a bed of knowledge," said Rhein. "People are looking for a face and a personal opinion. The personal touch is just not there with the internet."

Agencies have found that not all sites on the internet are reliable sources of information.

According to John Harper, owner and president of Harper's Travel Service in Sikeston, there are a lot of perils when booking online.

"A lot of things still aren't perfect in the internet world," said Harper. "We have found misinformation and bad recommendations on hotels, etc. People have to take everything with a grain of salt."

Rhein said she has listened to many horror stories of travelers that booked online.

"Most of those customers come back to us after their negative experience with the internet," she said.

Travel websites proclaim that they have the best deals, and prices may be cheaper in some cases. But travel agents have access to special deals that travelers can't find on the internet. Agencies can have affiliate agreements with large travel companies that negotiate lower rates on their behalf. This allows agents to negotiate other things such as making seats available on a flight that is sold out or getting you on a priority waiting list for a flight.

Agents are also available to help you through flight changes or any other problems that you might run into while traveling.

"It's comforting for people to know that they have a local contact in case there are any problems," said Rhein.

In the years to come, researchers are skeptical as to how often travel agents will actually be used.

According to an article from travelweekly.com, the TNS-Plog American Traveler Survey shows that the customer who is older and more affluent is more likely to be the customer of a traditional travel agency. But it cannot be assumed that today's generation of digital children will change their ways as they become older and more affluent.

Another article from travel mole.com said that more than a quarter of the younger age group said they spend more time on the net than they do reading national newspapers.

This could force all travel agencies to construct websites loaded with video streams and podcasts about destinations, which would cater to the younger generations.

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