Return of the travel agent

Among the first salespeople  to see their business up-ended by the Internet were travel agents. Their offices full of brochures and 7-day package offers were swept aside by Expedia, Orbitz and travelers willing to do the legwork themselves to plan their own trips. 

At the high end, companies which organized lavish “experiences”, safaris, railway journeys through Rajasthan, still thrived. But further down, the travel agent disappeared.

Now it seems as though the industry has broken into two very distinct pieces. At one end, the online sector is consolidating in the face of Google’s ever more sophisticated travel search capabilites. Priceline’s acquisition of Kayak last week was evidence of this.

But at the top end, and in certain market segments, it seems the travel agent is coming back, offering a sales approach with considerable appeal to those looking for bespoke travel, or even just reassurance and professional guidance through the purchase of a good which has all kinds of significance beyond price.

Travel can be highly emotional or it can come with great uncertainty. People worry about making the wrong choice for that holiday of a lifetime, or being stranded while overseas. A great salesperson can help a customer overcome these anxieties in a way a Google search never can.

I’ve read that recreation is the only area of household spending which rises over the age of 50. Everything else is cut back as children leave the home and retirement savings have to be piled up. Then think of how people over 50 buy. It makes sense that they want to talk to someone before arranging something as important as travel.

The FT reported on Saturday about the return of the travel agent. Only this time, they’re communicating with customers through online video chats. As OhHi one of the providers of the video chat services says, “it’s like having Skype on your website.”

I’m often asked about the way technology has changed sales. There are lots of ways. But a big one is the way it has increased access to information without necessarily increasing trust. When it comes to travel, we can read endless articles and user reviews, but sometimes you just want to talk to someone who can answer your questions, customize your purchase and allay your fears in a more fluid way than you get when buying on Orbitz.

Assuming the salesperson is honest, it can also be much quicker and more efficient to buy this way. Technology hasn’t killed traditional sales, but rather narrowed and redefined the way it can be used.

4 thoughts on “Return of the travel agent

  1. To some extent, the confusion of information available online requires even more of that. It has become so hard to navigate and choose under uncertainty that you need someone who is willing to help and ready to take action if you end up in the wrong place. On the other side, the fierce competition of low-cost-do-it-yourself alternatives requires travel agents to really care for their customers.


    1. philipdelvesbroughton

      Good to hear from you Luca. Your first point explains the appeal of American Express to so many users – its travel services and support when you’re on the road. Your second lays out the challenge for the agents, providing great service without incurring huge additional cost. Which is part of why video is so appealing – no need for expensive retail rents.


  2. I recently purchased your book and in the process of reading it to improve and become better at sales for myself and a skincare and spa therapy magazine company (print and digital) where I work. At the office we have a morning sales meeting, read quotes and discuss how they apply to our business and how to use them for our betterment.

    It’s interesting when you point out that a travel agent is “offering a sales approach with considerable appeal to those looking for bespoke travel, or even just reassurance and professional guidance through the purchase of a good” (s). I am thinking this is a great approach for a spa travel agent (for resort travel) or perhaps even a spa concierge/consultant (at your local spa) for them to be a “great salesperson (that) can help a customer overcome these anxieties in a way a Google search never can.”

    When i visited a local Korean Spa here in Dallas, I first went to their website for information on all the spa treatments, various saunas and therapies they had to offer since i know this place is huge and has a unique cultural spa atmosphere. I had already gathered first hand information from friends who had already gone and appreciated this very much. I valued the first hand experience that they conveyed to me.

    Now I know that I have become better and more of a knowledgeable sales person when it comes time to advising others on an excellent made to measure spa and treatment experience.
    We need more spa travel agents for local and far away spas!

    Dallas, TX USA


    1. philipdelvesbroughton

      Thanks for your note Mark. And for buying my book. I hope it does help you in your work.

      Fascinating what you say about spas. Korean spas are a whole thing to themselves. I remember reading this piece in the NYTimes a few years ago about the huge Korean spas in New Jersey. It’s amazing how different cultures have such different views of what a spa should feel like. A Russian bath house is a whole different experience from a Korean spa which in turn is hugely different from the kind of spa you’d find at a luxury European or American hotel chain.

      And of course, given how vulnerable one is when at a spa – often in just a robe or a towel! – you REALLY want to know what you’re getting before you get there.

      Thanks again, and best of luck.



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