Will travel agents be replaced by Machines?

Occasionally I am asked (by those that are not in the know) why someone would choose to utilize the services of a travel agent when the ability to book travel is easily accessed via the internet. Thirty years ago the question “Why would anyone need a travel agent when there is the internet?” was a real concern. Today, this question brings a smile to my face. Over time in this industry, I have come to the realization that travel is an investment, and that I am actually a Travel Investment Advisor. The term “travel agent” has become somewhat outdated and is not widely used by travel professionals any longer. However, for the purposes of this article I will use the term travel agent, but know that times have changed.

It can be easy to forget that the internet is much of a source of misinformation as it good information, and most of all too much information…and lot that is just noise.

A few weeks ago I went in for my quarterly dental cleaning, and instead of my regular dentist (a client), I was seen by his new associate for my checkup. This young man, after our pleasant get-to-know-you-before-my-hand-goes-down-your-throat chit chat, asked a variation of that question by asking, “I know how to book my own travel, why would I go to you?”

To which I replied, “I know how to brush my own teeth – why would I go to you?”

We both had a good laugh!

The author on a Nile River cruise near Edfu, Egypt November 2021

In fact, there are many experts in all types of professions that you can bypass and find on the internet. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Examples in addition to travel include getting a loan, getting a mortgage, investing in your retirement, home insurance, or legal advice.

There are three important reasons why shouldn’t. First, while the internet is good at ordering numbers and dollars, it is, so far, not very good at ranking the value proposition. Second, we use the internet – just like you – as part of the process, yet it takes expertise to eliminate all of the noise and evaluate the actual good options. Finally, the professional wants to know about you and your individual needs in order to curate the ideal custom experience.

For more details about why the internet may not be the best way for you to book travel, see the Story of Orbot. In these categories, use the internet for research and ideas, and then take your research to the expert. As we say about travel, “the internet is for looking and MGA is for booking!”

Think about it this way – perhaps you book a few trips a year or you are a frequent traveler and book 8 or 9 leisure trips a year. Our travel agents book that many trips in any given day. An additional benefit of hiring a travel advisor is leveraging the experience of not only that advisor but the agency’s team of advisors…and all of their clients who have returned from travel as well.

Does that mean I think that all travel agents do a great job, or that I should not book any of my own travel?

Let me break that down into two answers, both of which are No.

1) All travel agents do not do a great job. You need a good travel agent and ideally one that has experienced the type of travel that you are contemplating. Alternatively, you may find a good travel agent that is perhaps not the right fit for you. This person is advising you on how to spend your money, so choose someone who will advise you on how to spend it just as wisely as you saved it. We call this balancing your nest egg with your bucket list.

2) You don’t need help to book all your travels, or at least I hope you don’t. Booking flights and a hotel for a weekend getaway? A simple project like this lends itself to being a DIY. Tip: when you do book on your own, always use the airline or hotel website directly; do not use an aggregator or online travel agency.

So, how do you know when you should work with a travel agent? Generally speaking, the more expensive, complicated, novel, or once-in-a-lifetime the travel is, the more likely you will benefit from the expertise of a great travel agent.

Typically people really realize they need(ed) a travel agent when they run into problems. And I don’t just mean while they are abroad, either! Helping a client walk through canceling a trip and weigh insurance and other options can be a two hour conversation.

It is equally important to make sure you booked the right vacation, because if your travel companion is unhappy you are going to be unhappy…long after you return home. At my agency, we call that the opposite of being a Travel Hero. The right travel agent will match you with the right supplier, in the right type of accommodations, at the right time of year…and so on.

And before you leave, a good travel agent will make sure you understand what to expect during your travels, including applicable covid protocols or supplier peace of mind policies.

I would further advise looking for a travel agent that charges fees. It’s a very good sign that they know what they are doing, and it opens up doors for you as a client.

Here’s an example: a new client was recently referred to MGA Travel and wanted to take a multi-generational family to Italy in a few months. He wanted VIP, behind the scenes, and skip-the-lines access for all tours in Rome. Then, after a few days in Rome, he wanted a to move to a coastal town into an amazing fully staffed Villa for a few weeks. Two requirements were that it have sweeping vistas of the Med and a nice pool. The catch is that he was part of a Vacation Club with points and wanted to use his points to book the villa, but that “it takes brainiac to operate their website.”

Because we charge professional fees, we don’t rely on commissions. So we were happy to take his login and operate the site ourselves, cross-referencing available villas against our own sources. We also knew the perfect area to start looking. When we found the one that checked all of the boxes, we contacted the owner only to find out that the swimming pool was out of commission for the rest of the year. So the search continued and eventually we found a villa that will exceed all of the expectations of every member of this group.

We have hosted several groups in Italy and sent many clients as well, which has allowed us over the years to have a personal network of contacts in this particular region. We reached out to one of our favorite guides to check on availability, and she will be personally guiding this family on their own private, VIP, behind the scenes, skip-the-lines tours.

Hopefully it is clear that this trip was not ideally suited for an online booking experience!

Michael and Kelly hosting an Outlander Society trip river cruise from Paris to Normandy in 2018

Some of our most popular trips are those small groups that we host ourselves, which brings a whole new level of service to travel that one can only fully understand by experiencing it. Ours is a private travel club known as the Outlander Society so named prior to the Netflix series. I imagine that one day an AI travel expert robot could be hosting group travel around the world. I know that sooner than that, the “metaverse” will allow you to enter virtual reality and you can visit historic sites around the world in realistic 3D.

Both of those things sound pretty cool to me, but neither will be a substitute for the true experience of actual travel with a real person that cares about both you and experience on your holiday.

So…will travel agents be replaced by the internet? Not this one.

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