The Internet vs. The Volcano: Guess Who Won?

One of our readers recently asked us to provide tips on how to overcome the perception that consumers get better deals online than with a travel agent.

I think the best response to such an assertion is that people don’t know what they’re getting over the Internet. They might be getting a hotel room that was photographed with a telephoto lens (remember, it’s a dead giveaway when the far wall is really tiny and objects that are closer to the camera look huge in proportion).

I took the question to our readers, and Steve Cousino of Journeys by Steve says he’s often able to match the price his clients find online.

“Sometimes there’s a reason the pricing is different, such as not comparing identical itineraries, and that needs to be adjusted,” he says. That’s great advice. Take a closer look at the two offers and be sure they’re comparable. If not, be prepared to explain that yours may have more value-adds or better accommodations.

Even if it doesn’t add up, Cousino doesn’t suffer any anguish.

“Many times, even if the pricing is better online, it’s not better enough for them to lose out on my service, advice and advocation,” he says. Now there’s a professional with the right attitude and the correct level of confidence.

Michael Jablonski says that “suppliers touting no discounting and level playing fields [Internet prices beating travel agents’] should never happen. But we all know it does, so if I cannot price-match, and they don’t accept that my service is worth the difference, there is not much to do.” However, Jablonski still keeps good customer service in mind. “I thank them for the contact and wish them well and ask they try us again. They stay on our mailing list.”

And they may return. As Ronda Barnett Zeneri says: “If they have questions, who can they ask online? If they have problems and they’ve booked online...they are in big trouble!”

Karen Smith can easily explain how valuable her expertise is, courtesy of a recent experience with a client who asked for a car rental in Germany. He claimed he was going to book his hotel on his own using a guidebook he’d come upon. She reminded him that this is the year of Oberammergau’s famous Passion Play and that Germany travel would be up. His response was, “Passion Play? What’s that?”

Susan Sandulak is also confident of her worth and shared a good tip. “A lot of my clients need more than [just] airfare. I may be able to suggest cheaper or quicker routes. For example, flying into Pisa rather than Venice is a money saver!” Thank you, Susan!

I don’t think the value of a travel agent could have been any clearer than with the recent volcanic ash crisis in Europe, when millions of travelers were stranded for days on end. As Travel Agent’s George Dooley wrote that week, “Travel agents are emerging as heroes to many travelers during the volcanic ash crisis that is only now coming to a costly end. As the blame game begins, agents appear to have proven their value as the public reached out for help.” George points out that agents at Liberty Travel were working 24/7 to get their clients home. They even assisted people who weren’t their clients, who were just desperate.

In fact, there’s your tip. The next time someone asks how you compare to an online service, ask them who they’d like to call on when they’re stranded far away from home with no relief in sight—you or the Internet?

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