Despite tough challenges, travel agents have an extraordinary relevance to the global travel industry and have proven their value to consumers and industry suppliers, according to Peter Barlow, president of the Travel Agents Association of New Zealand (TAANZ) and the newly elected chairman of the World Travel Agents Associations Alliance (WTAAA).
In an interview with Travel Agent, Barlow offered a global perspective on professional travel agents. He stressed the ability of travel agents and the industry to withstand the current global economic challenges as he urged agents to embrace new technologies that make them an integral and indispensible part of supplier marketing and distribution. WTAAA is an association of national travel agent associations.
“The relevance of the travel agent has never been more important as the consumer must navigate the myriad of destination information, airfares, travel products, passport/visa documentation and ancillary fees that make travel an increasingly complicated experience,” said Barlow, who is also the director of New Zealand’s Williment Travel Group. “By ancillary fees, I mean the various pricing models that airlines, cruise-lines and some hotels have adopted that have lead-in prices but a raft of additional costs for baggage, meals and entertainment options notwithstanding the varied airline/airport/customs/immigration and city taxes and levies.
“The resilience of travel agents is extraordinary,” Barlow continued. “The latest global economic crisis is just one of many crisis that the travel industry has weathered for a very long time. I think back to the crisis of 1987, the Gulf War, bird flu, SARS, various airline disasters, terrorist attacks, 9/11, volcanic ash, changing governments and more, that all have a significant impact on travel patterns and greatly affect the travel industry, both the agent and the supplier. That the industry still thrives globally and continues to evolve and remain relevant is fascinating. Naturally, some markets are emerging stronger, more quickly than others after the latest crisis. I believe this will continue for a while yet.
“Technology has the single biggest impact on our industry and travel agents must embrace this,” Barlow continued. “The consumer is more tech savvy and they are constantly searching for information that has become critical to their decision making. Agents who provide an on-line solution are already ahead of the game where good service has become a minimum pre-requisite. Social media has become a marketing tool and airlines and aggregators like Expedia and Google are drawing consumers to their sites and are using the power of their brands and database to promote travel solutions. Many people will use online solutions for simple point to point travel, but anything more complicated is fraught with danger for the inexperienced, and most will seek the knowledge and comfort of a travel professional.”
Supplier/agent relations also got a boost form agents, according to Barlow. “Naturally, supplier relationships are critical to the relevance of the travel agent. Airlines still receive the bulk of their global sales via the travel agency network,” he said. “The GDS's play a vital part in this and themselves must remain relevant. The agent and the GDS are intrinsically linked and the GDS must continue to work closely with the airlines, hotels, rental car and cruise companies to ensure their place in the distribution system. Hotel Groups and cruise companies would agree that the travel agent is integral to their marketing and distribution.”
Barlow was elected to the chair of WTAAA during its recent annual meeting in Sydney. Other new officers include Ajay Prakash, president of the Travel Agents Federation of India (TAFI), who will serve as deputy chairman. Chris Russo, chairman and president of ASTA, is also on WTAAA’s Board