Travel Agents Report Business Is Up

November 15, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — Travel agencies have weathered some tough times. Airlines betrayed them. Internet start-ups threatened their consumer base. The post 9-11 travel recession eliminated 40 percent of the field.

Today, however, some local agents are happy to report that they believe the industry is picking up steam.

“I think things are definitely getting back on track,” explained TQ3 Navigant vice president of client management Brett Elzinga. “We are seeing an uptick in our corporate travel in the local marketplace, things seem to be strong and next year’s projections are even better.

“We are involved in the budget process, and a number of our customers are projecting increases in travel for next year,” he said. “That’s the first time we’ve seen that since 9-11.”

Elzinga said that the upswing is two-fold: the marketplace is better in general, while agency responses to a changing industry will prevent further loss.

A 2004 report by the American Society of Travel Agents says agents still sell 70 percent of all airline tickets, 95 percent of cruises, 90 percent of tours and packages, 40 percent of all car rentals and 25 percent of all hotels.

The Internet posed a greater threat to travel agents than to any other industry, but firms have responded by leveraging the resources central to the field: service and convenience. But ground is no longer slipping away to bargain-hunter Web sites like Expedia and Travelocity.

“When our customers are traveling to Asia, they don’t want a Web site to go to for help,” Elzinga said. “They want an agent. They want 24-hour service. They want somebody with immediate access to their profile. That kind of service is not something that technology will ever replace.”

In fact, many firms have responded with their own online tools to complement the personal service. Elzinga said that roughly 30 percent of Navigant’s customers consistently use the company’s online tool to book flights.

“People used to be driven to consumer sites. Today they are able to use the online tools within our infrastructure,” he said. “They look and feel very much the same, but this is a managed and controlled program with policy components and contracts designed to meet the objectives of the corporation.”

Small businesses have also opted to maintain relationships with agents for similar reasons.

“That’s been a challenge for us, the new we-can-do-it-on-our-own philosophy,” said Lillian VanderVeen, president of Lenger Travel. “But people are finding out that without an agent you really are out there on your own. If your travels go well then you’re fine, but if you have a problem, you don’t have anyone to help you.

“If your flight’s cancelled or delayed, you can’t just pick up a cell phone and call Travelocity and get on a new flight,” she said. “When a businessman is stranded in an airport for hours, he’s losing money. They can’t help you get home quicker, and we can’t help you if you book your flights through them.”

Besides emergencies, VanderVeen explained that many of her clients had noticed a loss of productivity from staff tasked with making their own or coworkers travel plans.

“Any company that is very mindful of their staff sees right away how much time their employees spend making arrangements for flights, hotels and rental cars,” she said. “They find out it isn’t practical to have them do it themselves.”

Elzinga said he thinks customers who tried their own travel arrangements have returned. “Agents are still the only source of unbiased information out there. The decision is if you want to save a few bucks on the fee and spend the time to do it yourself. There really is no comparison — people just aren’t doing that. They might have a little more flexibility if it’s their own personal trip and they’re flexible, but the corporate traveler is not doing that.”

Navigant is also finding many clients asking for help in consolidating and managing business meetings and conferences. Many companies find that establishing a consolidated and controlled meetings program has saved significant dollars.

“If groups or meetings aren’t negotiated as meetings, you could be leaving contract money on the table,” Elzinga said. “You could be taking advantage of airline contracts or other things that could reduce the expense associated with having a meeting.”

On the flip side, leisure travel appears to be making gains as well.

“Business has been good for the last 10 months or so,” said John Lovell of Breton Village Travel Services Inc. “There are still a lot of great values out there.”

Ninety-five percent of Breton Village Travel’s business is the leisure and vacation traveler. Like many of its peers, such as Lenger Travel, the firm has found that it can no longer live and die by the airlines, and has worked to develop a specialization within the market. Breton has found the greatest success in the cruise industry, while Lenger has developed specialized tours to Turkey.

“You have to build a niche,” VanderVeen said. “You used to be able to sell airline tickets, vacation travel, and that was it; that’s not true anymore.”

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