Bright Future for Travel Agents

The dramatic and almost cataclysmic changes to the travel industry over the past decade disrupted and changed the entire travel industry, and particularly the way travel agents do business. Stanley C. Plog

Wars and terrorist attacks, bird flu and tsunamis, political instability in many regions of the world, recessions and economic uncertainty, and the Internet, have had a far-reaching impact. These occurrences have forced large travel suppliers with household names into bankruptcy, thrown hundreds of thousands out of work, and helped close the doors of about a third of existing travel agencies.

But the dust is starting to clear from the debris, and this is a useful time to review some trends that will impact travel agencies now and in the future.

These are some of my primary projections based on continuing research during this period of time, and personal observations.

Leisure travel is a top personal priority: The desire for leisure travel has now been ingrained permanently into the psyches of people, not only in the U. S. but around the world. When I began to conduct travel research in 1967, leisure travel measured low in personal priorities. Most people would rather have spent the money to fix up their homes, buy new furniture and appliances, or get a new car.

Now leisure travel measures at the top of the list of personal priorities for most people.

After a decline in recent years, leisure travel has again become a top personal priority

The number of Americans taking leisure trips continues to increase steadily, even in the face of major crises.

For example, after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, total trips that year actually increased. International travel declined, but domestic travel increased. What this means is that travel agencies can expect that demand for leisure travel will continue to increase in the future, even in the face of unexpected worldwide events. Growth will be slower but consistent.

Multiple age groups are now good targets: Several reasons contribute to the growth in leisure travel. Baby boomers, who explored the world as teenagers, are now entering the age (45 and up) when they can fulfill their desires to travel more. The kids have left the nest or will soon, personal equity is high, and most have not retired so that they enjoy high incomes. But their influence has spread to their retired parents who have also decided to travel rather than protecting their estates to leave a larger inheritance for their children. More important, young people today are traveling at a rate that exceeds even their boomer parents, and they are opting for upscale travel more than the budget excursions pursued by their parents. Travel agencies now have a broader range of audiences to target than ever. Success will come to those who either learn how to serve this broad market or who effectively target special age groups or niches.

Demand for longer trips will outpace short trips: The market for leisure travel continues to evolve, slowly but surely. In recent columns, I pointed out that the large, annual American Traveler Survey that I initiated in 1994 (now conducted by TNS travel services) has shown that the number of days of vacation time available each year has been declining during the last several years in the U.S. In response, people have cut back on shorter trips (three days or less) but continue to take longer trips, including going overseas. Most agencies, as a result, should consider focusing even more heavily on selling tours, cruises and extended packages than in the past, rather than short-term packages. You'll get bigger commissions and you have the expertise and knowledge that travelers need.

Limitations of the Internet becoming clearer to travelers: Internet bookings will continue to increase, but the growth rate has slowed and will decline even further in the near-term future. Increasing numbers of travelers have learned that searching the web is a time consuming and often frustrating process to find the best fares, coordinate the many details of a trip and, in the case of online distributors, make certain that air and hotel bookings are guaranteed by the travel suppliers. There is a slight but important migration back to travel agents by web users. Travel agents can increase their clientele by emphasizing what they do that the web cannot do. That includes promoting that you offer the lowest fares possible without the hassles of spending time on the Internet; you coordinate all travel arrangements; and you are there to help if something goes wrong. And all of this comes for just a slight fee.

Demand for well-informed travel agents will grow: Although the decline in the number of existing travel agencies has been dramatic, the numbers are now stabilizing. Survivors are smarter, tougher, better managed and operating with more effective business plans. To ensure continued success and growth, you should purchase databases that have good descriptions of destinations, get your agents trained as cruise or destination specialists, and target audiences that are likely to use travel agents (typically older and after the kids have left home, and younger singles). And, very important, make certain that you have a good web presence that promotes your offerings and capabilities.

The primary message of this review of trends is that the future for travel agencies will get better, not worse. Leisure travel will continue to increase, the need for the counsel and advice offered by agents will continue and even grow, there are more opportunities to earn higher commissions, and the Internet can be used to your advantage if you emphasize the benefits of using your services.

After nearly a decade of fighting a turbulent market, you can now begin to enjoy the benefits of trends that point in your direction.