Travel agents weather the internet storm

| 18/07/2017 | 2 Comments

(CNS Business): With all the online options for booking flights and hotels, it would be understandable to think that the days of the good, old-fashioned bricks-and-mortar travel agent have gone the way of the dodo. But while the rise of travel websites has siphoned off business and thinned the market somewhat, Cayman is still home to agencies offering one-stop-shop services. Two companies in particular, which have been around more than three decades and thus predate the web onslaught, seem to have weathered the internet storm and maintained a comfortable niche for themselves among the travelling public.

Travel Pros was established in 1980, and while online booking has affected the business, office manager Steve Pillar said, “Our numbers continue to grow.”

He attributes some of that success to the local shake-out of Cayman’s travel industry, explaining, “This has been due to a reduction in the number of ‘traditional’ travel agencies. Only the strongest, most professional agencies have survived.”

In fact, he said that his staff actually encourages clients first to go online to research fares and then come talk to them. “Chances are we can match or better prices found online,” Pillar said. “We have more resources at our fingertips and, as professionals, know where and how to find the ‘deals’. There are a lot of websites that can’t offer the itineraries we can, due to alliance and faring issues.”

There is no doubt that travel agents overall were affected by the rise in online booking, though. Looking at the US market as an example, the number of agencies dropped from a high of 124,000 in 2000 to about 70,000. But those numbers might have bottomed out as consumers start to return to agencies due to several advantages over online sites.

For one thing, while the internet offers instant information at the press of a few keys, anyone who has tried to book a flight online knows that it can actually be quite time consuming trying to sift through all the choices and prices. In addition, web fares are usually non-refundable and do not allow changes, whereas a travel agent can offer other options, which might be preferable even if they are more costly.

Perhaps the biggest plus to using a travel agent is the personal interface. Pillar considers good customer service “crucial”, adding, “Websites can’t interact with a client the way we do. They can’t offer advice, or speak to personal experiences. In case of disruption we are easier to contact than a 1-800 number. We have clients call us from airports for assistance; it is quicker for us to resolve a problem over the phone, than for a client to wait in a long line for assistance.”

Mindy Scott-Hennings, general manager of Cayman Travel Service, which has been operating for more than 33 years, agrees that the human touch is key. “I feel that travel agents will always be relevant because of the type of personalised service we offer. We take the time to get to know our clients and their preferences in order to create the perfect vacation experience tailored to them.”

Being able to call her office and speak to a person rather than interacting online “is especially important if a problem arises that needs to be resolved quickly”.

But it is also necessary to maintain an online presence, she added. “We now use more web-based platforms to market ourselves” such as a website and various social media.

Both agencies acknowledge that there is a section of the travelling public that prefers booking trips online. Pillar estimates it is a “50/50 mix” of people arranging trips themselves versus using an agency. “We email back and forth with a lot of clients, who sometimes book online. Then we also have a line of people in the office every day that prefer to do business face to face.”

Scott-Hennings believes more travellers favour coming to the store to book trips. “There will always be those people who prefer to ‘do it on their own’ but I feel that the majority of people in Cayman prefer to use a storefront business versus an online site,” she said. “This also applies to our many corporate clients who count on us to manage their travel.”

In the US market, there have been signs of a shift back to booking through agents, particularly among younger travellers, which Pillar has also noticed in Cayman.

“The next generation understands the benefits of using an agency,” he said. “They are looking for an experience, not just a round-trip ticket. They want to discuss all of the possibilities.”

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Category: Local Business, Transport

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  1. Anonymous says:

    These two agencies survived the storm because of best business practice and policy. Their customer service is phenomenal and that is what will keep them relevant and desirable by the traveling public.

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  2. Anonymous says:

    Best service experience ever is working with Travel Pros here on island! It doesn't matter where I go, Travel Pros has made my travel plans flawless.

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