I grabbed my “travel trade” badge and headed inside one of the largest travel shows in the U.S.. It was Saturday and the line was out the door with eager attendees hoping to find their next big adventure or even better, win one! I have been attending these grand expos for many year often having a booth for my own company Villa Vita offering authentic Italy vacations. As I roamed the aisles to visit some of the larger global tour companies I had come to see, I can honestly say that overall I was met with less-than-enthusiastic greetings this year compared to those of years past. Of course, they saw my badge and the next natural question they expect from me is “do you work with travel agents?” In other words, does your company pay commission? Or worse, perhaps they think I am there to ask for a free trip or to find our when is their next FAM (learning familiarization trips for travel professionals).
For the last 25 years or so, I have seen the role of the travel agent move from an essential position in order to secure the best flights and vacations – to now being that of a luxury for travelers who can afford the fees or are hesitant to book on the internet. And the DIY travelers get great satisfaction when they boast about how they “booked everything themselves online” believing that they saved a bundle! Which can certainly be true! However, when the airport closes due to unforeseen situations, or they have to make changes, or it isn’t quite what they were expecting when they arrive, they soon realize the amount of work involved in sorting out the details to minimize the losses (one of the core values of using a travel professional).
Lately the shift from agent/supplier partnerships to direct bookings has become more pronounced with the soaring popularity of travel sites such as TripAdvisor. Many hotels, cruise and tour companies prefer to work directly with the traveling public and who could blame them? They can offer lower rates via their website when no middleman is involved. They can loudly promote non-refundable rates or fares excluding required service fees and make a fortune on those travelers who are lured by shiny low prices.
Hey, I get it. Why pay more when you can get it for less online?
But you really know, it is never apples to apples. Travel agents can often get more amenities for the same price, offer agency or group discounts, and their clients are treated like “repeat guests” getting assigned the better room at check-in next to the person who booked on the web. In general the tour companies, cruise lines and hotels truly want the agency bookings to be very well looked after – simply because they want future business from them.
Nonetheless, I gathered up some information that I knew would be useful for my clients and it wasn’t long before my bag was full and it was time to leave. The next day I decided to go in with a “visitor” badge and go incognito. Funny, some of the same folks I spoke with the day before greeted me with great new excitement presenting me with all the fabulous offerings they had. (Now these shows attract tens of thousands of attendees so it is not surprising that an exhibitor may not remember someone from just the day before.) They eagerly tried to woo me onto one of their trips. They all wanted to be my friend volunteering their business card with all their emails and social connections listed. I felt so loved.
That night I thought about the industry I chose for my profession, and saw the ongoing transformation more clearly then ever. The gap between DIY (do-it-yourself) and DFY (done-for-you) is widening. Stay tuned.