IN THE PAST WEEK OR SO, I'VE COME ACROSS SEVERAL VERY INTERESTING RESEARCH REPORTS AND ARTICLES THAT FURTHER REINFORCE THE HEALTH AND RESURGENCE OF THE TRAVEL AGENT DISTRIBUTION CHANNEL. Overall, travel spending is up—way up—both through online and traditional channels. But here's a really telling statistic:
The number of U.S. leisure travel bookers—online travelers who use the Internet to both research and buy travel—fell 9 percent from 2005 to 2007 (Forrester Research, October 2007: "Are Online Travelers Saying 'Buh-Bye' to the Web?"). Forrester began tracking Internet travel spending 10 years ago, and this is the first time that the travel category has lost shoppers.
"This is a wake-up call for the industry," said Henry Harteveldt, Forrester's online travel analyst. "Customers are tired of spending two or three hours trying to find the airline or hotel or vacation package that meets their needs." Uh, hello? I think we in the travel agency world have been saying this for a while.
Online Bookers Returning to Agents
Here's another fascinating stat: According to PhoCusWright, a travel consultancy based in Connecticut, consumers with access to the Internet who usually book travel online dropped 6 percentage points, from 68 percent down to 62 percent, between 2006 and 2005. At the same time, the number of travelers who say they usually arrange travel offline increased from 25 percent to 31 percent during that same period.
So, clearly, some people are dissatisfied with the experience of online travel purchasing—no customer service, no firsthand knowledge and none of the accountability that you offer. Sure, they're continuing to do research online, which is great for you, as it can save you time. But they are increasingly reaching out to their travel agents rather than hitting the "Add to Cart" button on Orbitz or Expedia.
One of the main reasons cited for the drop-off in online booking is that the travel web sites are failing to sell the way people want to buy. That bears repeating: To succeed, you have to sell the way your clients want to buy. That involves asking the right questions, listening, processing the information and offering suggestions. Isn't that what you do every day? No web site has yet to figure out the right algorithms and database calculations that come close to the human factor offered by an experienced, well-traveled, professional travel agent.
Is this the perfect storm for our industry: more spending on travel, less of it online, more of it through traditional channels? It may be. One thing is clear: The world is your oyster right now. Continue doing what you're doing. Focus on service. Use technology to your advantage. Stay close to your clients. Understand what makes them tick, what makes them happy and what makes them travel.