Travel agents haven’t been replaced by the Internet — in fact they’re more in demand than ever

Part of the joy of watching the television show The Americans, which is set in the early 1980s, is marvelling at the fashion, design and accoutrement that now are, if not defunct, then at least retro (and not in a chic way). Big hair, shoulder pads, station wagons. The two main characters even own a travel agency — how retro is that?

Except, despite what pop culture and the Internet might have one think, travel agencies and the agents who work in them are alive and well. In fact, we may be in a midst of a shortage. “For a good 15 years, when the Internet came into play, a lot of people chose to bypass this as an option for a career,” says Claire Newell, owner of Travel Best Bets, an agency based in Vancouver. “We’ve seen less people going into travel school to be part of the industry.”

With the advent of the sharing economy, and the apps that go along with it — enabling people to order an Uber ride to take them to their Airbnb apartment, flight aggregators like Skyscanner and Google Flights allowing travellers to view all manner of options based on price, layovers and flight duration (even private jets can be chartered online much the same way a pizza can be ordered) and apps like I Know The Chef, Table 8 and Open Table making restaurant reservations bookable with the tap of a thumb — it may be surprising to learn that travel agents are still, nay, increasingly in demand. More surprising is who is doing the demanding.

It’s millennials. (The other main demographic calling on agents is “Boomers and matures,” says Newell, referring to the generation above Boomers.)

“For the simple things, people are using the Internet and doing it themselves — simple flights and hotel bookings,” Newell explains, “but over the past four years there has been a move back to using travel agencies. People want to have everything taken care of for them. The millennials want someone who knows better than they do to book their trip for them, and like the Boomers and matures, want to see some pretty bucket list-y type trips. They’re going to Macchu Pichu and the Great Wall of China.” They also want airport transfers taken care of, show tickets obtained, tables reserved at restaurants, hotel upgrades — they want it all, and they’re willing to pay a booking fee, which can range from $25 to $100, to have someone take care of it for them.

In a way, instead of being the only option for booking travel or a last resort for those not knowing any better, arranging things via an agent now is a  matter of convenience, akin to hiring an accountant for tax time or a real estate agent for a home sale.

“Using a travel agent is like having a concierge in your pocket,” says Heather Greenwood-Davis, a travel journalist who, from June 2011 to June 2012, travelled around the world with her husband and two sons. Given her work experience, she had fully intended to plan the 12-month adventure — traversing six continents and hitting 29 countries — by herself, but while attending a travel trade show she happened to strike up a conversation with a round-the-world specialist. After telling him her carefully planned route, one she says had an oval shape, the agent replied, “You know the world is round, right?”

“I gave him a list of dream destinations, and he whittled it down, based on costs and timelines. He gave us three versions of the trip and that changed everything,” Greenwood-Davis says. “He had a bigger global vision than I had.”

Unlike taxes and real estate sales, booking travel plans seems like something anyone can manage — especially for simple trips like a weekend in New York — and travellers may be ready to tackle this task vs. the others because part of the joy that comes from planning it.

Published in the journal Applied Research in Quality of Life, a 2010 Dutch study by Jeroen Nawikn and a team from Rotterdam’s Erasmus University and NHTV Bread University of Applied Sciences found that people planning a vacation are happier than those staying put, in part due to the anticipation of the journey, but that post-trip, there was no difference in happiness levels of holidaymakers and homebodies.

But planning can be a lot of the work, and the Internet can be overwhelming. So how does one find a travel agent in 2015 — other than walking into the Flight Centre? (Although, that’s exactly what Greenwood-Davis did when she visited their booth.)

“Word of mouth is by far the best way,” says Newell, “but if someone doesn’t know where to begin they should do a Google search for a local magazine or newspaper in their area that does a ‘top travel agencies’ in the city/town that is voted by the people. Then call or email a few to see who has the best followup.”

Mary Jane Hiebert, an agent for the past 21 years and chairwoman of the Association of Canadian Travel Agencies, says that ACTA maintains an unbiased list of reputable agents and agencies across the country at “People will be able to find an agency in their area, or research any others that they may have heard of. Any of these listed will be ACTA members who operate under a code of conduct, and are trusted advisors,” she says.

(For further vetting, ask where the agent learned his or her art. Newell says the top travel program in Canada is at Vancouver’s Canadian Tourism College: “They are constantly looking to improve their curriculum to ensure the graduates have the most robust program available.”)

Still unconvinced? Hiebert says that instead of being the death knell of the industry, the Internet has propelled it forward, allowing agents to maintain closer relationships with clients and arming them with a richer network of travel options for those clients. “People have become more savvy, confident and independent,” she says. “People are doing research, but they still want security.”

The travel agent is dead. Long live the travel agent.

This story ran in the National Post (Nov. 28, 2015)