“Year of the Agent”?

Travel agents who have been listening to the gloom and doom of prognosticators for the past year can take hope from the words of Insight Vacations’ president Marc Kazlauskas, who confidently proclaimed his belief that “2010 will be the year of the agent” at today’s ATME Travel Industry Forecast Forum in New York City.

“We expect to see a renaissance of the traditional agent this year,” he said, noting that so far in 2010, Insight is having a far better year than might have been expected after a dismal 2009. “We’re up 35 to 40 percent from last year already,” he said. “So  now we’re comparing our sales not to 2009 but to 2007 and 2008, which were banner years in the industry.”

Kazlauskas pointed to several factors for this increase, but the primary reason, he said, is “pent-up demand.” “Our biggest segment is baby boomers, a lot of whom didn’t go on vacation last year,” he noted. “But now a year has gone by, and they find that they still have jobs, or their 401(k)s are coming back, and they’re ready to travel.” Also playing into the increase in sales is that prices have dropped (Insight’s own prices are down around 3 percent) and the exchange rate is relatively stable.

It’s not all sunshine and lollipops for agents, however, as other members of the ATME panel pointed out. Frank Camacho, vice president marketing, Hertz Corp., and Rosanne Zusman, senior vice president, brand marketing, Wyndham Hotel Group, both acknowledged that the traditional travel agent channel continues to go down in their segments, replaced by more consumer use of OTAs and direct online purchasing.

According to Zusman, “Consumers are still looking for the deals, and they’re going to sites like Priceline.com where they can name their own price.” Adds Camacho, “We see a lot of shopping around on the OTAs, but in the end, people believe they can get better deals direct [from the supplier].”

And the deals that proliferated and defined the industy in 2009 will be back in 2010—though, to a lesser degree. “We won’t see the deep deals we saw in 2009, but it’s definitely still about the deal,” says Kazlauskas.

“The deal still exists,” said Camacho, “but this year we’re approaching business with a more balanced, 50-50 mix of deals and brand marketing.”

Kazlauskas suggested that while the most successful agents do have a strong web presence, they use that as a sales tool and not for online transactions. “The best agencies draw in customers via the web, then get them to contact the agency by phone. Many agencies don’t even have or need a booking engine online.” Personal relationships and the ability to close a deal are still the hallmarks of the traditional travel agent, he said. 

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