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.

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