Once upon a time, there used to be travel agents… Hang on…stop that story right there! While travel agents the world over are sometimes described as dinosaurs, extinct and, most recently by a Business Insider report, relics of the past, those travel agents that have evolved to keep up with changing consumer demands are in fact thriving.
The problem with the recent Business Insider report which claimed travel agents were a relic of the past and that the number of agents in the USA was actually half of what it was 15 years ago, is that the study failed to take into account the growing number of independent travel agents in the market.
“Surveys like these are dime a dozen and always based on a very narrow interpretation of the subject,” explains Mladen Lukic, GM Travel Counsellors South Africa. He says the report completely ignores the changes that have taken place in the travel industry over the last decade whereby travel agents have evolved from the corporate monoliths of the 90s representing the embodiment of the ‘Travel Agent’ heritage into ‘Travel Advisers’.
In the strict sense of the word, Lukic says the travel agent is indeed a relic of the past. “In our market we will continue to see the demise of the companies that are unable or unwilling to accept this reality. In this context South African market is just a little bit behind but following the same trends as overseas.”
According to Lukic, the new generation of travel advisers have made a significant departure from a reliance on commission and dependence on supplier sanctioned remuneration to a genuine focus on clients and their needs. “The most successful ones have also realised the value of relationships in the 21st century economy,” he adds.
Garth Wolff, CEO eTravel, agrees and explains that the traditional bricks-and-mortar travel agency is indeed dying as a result of high costs and small margins. The ITC market however, is far from dying, he argues and is actually continuing to grow.
“In South Africa, the traditional bricks and mortar travel agents will continue to diminish. IATA’s new financial criteria will push up costs for the traditional travel agent, who will then start exploring the option of becoming an ITC,” says Wolff, adding that the future of the travel industry is the ITC model.
However, according to Rod Rutter, outgoing COO XL Travel, the ITC sector is not only the only travel agent sector that has a future in South Africa. He explains the corporate market heavily relies on TMCs for data information, payment mechanisms, personal attention and cost saving, he argues. “There will always be a need for TMCs in the corporate market,” he says.
Tourvest Travel Services Chief Sales and Marketing Officer Claude Vankeirsbilck says travel agents have had to change the way they operate and are imperative for those travellers for whom travelling with peace of mind is important. “Our role is to provide a trusted source of advice and information, as well as product and content quickly.
“We have some responsibility to inform our customers and act in their best interest. And that means to tell them what’s happening the the destinations they’re travelling to, suggest travel in a specific way and provide risk communications daily.”
Claude says Duty of Care has become a massive component in any travel management programme. “We have employed technology to help our customers manage risk. We know where our travellers are at any point in time.”
Vanya Lessing, CEO Sure Travel, explains the secret to survival for travel agencies is to move with the times. She says: “The travel agents who did not move with the fast pace of consumer demand, technology and above all, providing customer service excellence, certainly became relics of the past.
“Today’s travel professional understands that customers have choice and that they have to provide not only the product, but a comprehensive travel management service. The value of trustworthy supplier relationships, duty of care and truly knowledgeable, experienced people cannot be underestimated.”