The travel agent of the future

The travel agent is here to stay! This is the main message in a recent Skift report that looks into the role of ‘The Travel Agent of the Future’.

Also ASATA has examined the future of the travel agents in South Africa today and in the years to come in its research ‘The 21st Century Travel Agent’ and came up with nine recommendations which you can read here.

The rise of online travel agencies (OTAs) and DIY travel initially led to a dramatic halving of the travel agency workforce, but this decline has now levelled off, according to the Skift Report. The reason? Travel agent have started stepping up to the plate and have adapted to the changing travel industry landscape.

Even though travel search and booking looks completely different today than it did just years ago, the travel agent still has an important role to play as the intersection between high-tech and high-touch is now a key battle ground for travel brands the world over, both Skift and ASATA found. 

How can travel agents leverage personalisation?

The harsh reality is that travellers know how to do most travel transactions online. The good news is that they’ll still turn to their travel agents, but they expect unique experiences tailored to their priorities. They want the travel agent to give them offers built on their preferences.

Today’s travellers expect to be seen as individuals and want to receive information and offers built on their preferences, delivered in a timely manner to the device of their choice. ASATA’s research into the 21st Century Travel Agent shows how the travel agent can adapt to this ‘new’ traveller by becoming more customer-centric and focus on services that meet the customer’s priorities.

Where will revenue be coming from?

For a long time, travel agents have been relying on revenue from travel suppliers in the form of commission and override commission payments. The result was that travel agents focused their business around the requirements of the supplier instead of the customer.

But this has started to change. As suppliers are increasingly withdrawing their commissions, travel agents have indicated they view themselves primarily as representatives of the customer instead of a distribution channel for suppliers. The customer’s interests have also become their main concern. However, travel agents are still struggling to understand how they can monetise additional value they create for the traveller.

The truth is that until travel agents understand their customers’ personal, business and economic contexts as fully as possible, they will be unable to help travellers improve their end-to-end travel experience, help corporate travel buyers make good travel-related business decisions or generate travel-related service fees at appropriate margins.

How will technology be arming travel agents for the future?

Until now, travel agents have responded defensively to the online and mobile technologies. Constrained by their historical physical retail store operating model, travel agents see themselves as being in competition with online travel booking engines and travel service providers for the travel booking transaction. This needs to change.

The Connected Traveller will move from channel to channel, expecting the same offers, prices and service whatever channel they choose. Travel Agents could leverage technology to pursue an ‘omni-channel’ strategy that delivers a personalised, 24/7 experience to the leisure traveller from the start of the travel process to the end.

Technology and mobile communication will allow travel agents to generate additional revenue from new offers that meet the needs of the travellers. Travel agents will also be able to use technology to promote and market their services via social media as well as use technologies to access detailed product and destination information.

Travel agents are back… here’s why

Customers are flocking back to the travel agent, according to a recent report in Travel Market Report. The article identified six reasons why travellers opt to book through their travel agent:

We offer guidance

Even the most seasoned travellers get a little nervous in these scary times where they are faced with Zika, terrorism and Ebola.  They appreciate our advice.

We offer savings

Agents have access to deals and promotions travellers do not, so we can still save our clients money.

OTAs are no longer flavour of the month

Travellers are frustrated with hidden fees and charges when they book through online travel agencies. There is just too much information out there to sort through.

We offer customer service

Travel agents help during the booking process and stay with you to make sure all goes right. And when there is a problem, we are there to intervene.

Deep knowledge of the destination, and personal understanding of your interests.
Agents often specialise in niche markets, so they can offer even more insight into a specific destination or segment of travel, like LGBT or destination weddings. And they spend a little time getting to know the customer, so they can make recommendations tailored to what you want to do. “It’s almost like your best friend is booking a trip for you,” says DiBernardo.

Travel agents’ customer base is skewing toward Millennials.
The percentage of travellers under the age of 35 who prefer to book their vacations through a travel agent increased 50% between 2014 and 2015, reports MMGY Global. They don’t have time to wade through all the options, and they understand there is only one chance to make a vacation perfect. Just as they hire an expert to do their taxes or maintain their garden, they want a knowledgeable professional to help them make this most important decision.

Everybody wants to be a travel agent…

The most recent Internet player to dabble in travel following Google,’s recent announcement is Skype.

Microsoft recently announced it will be adding its Cortana virtual assistant to Skype, which means that travellers are encouraged to book their travel or other services through the Skype instant-messaging platform.

All you apparently have to do is talk to Cortana through a button in the upper right of the Skype app to book a hotel room in let’s say Cape Town. Your booking is automatically added to your calendar, and Cortana will suggest you message a contact who lives in Cape Town about your visit. It will even write your message for you: “Hey, I’ll be in Cape Town from May 10 to 12. Would you want to meet up?   

According to a recent article in Tnooz, travellers don’t even have to do any effort to talk to Cortana. The artificial intelligence software will also scan users’ conversations. If it picks up that the user is writing messages suggesting they need a hotel, the bot will prompt the user to confirm the itinerary and suggest a hotel, show the options available and offer price comparisons.

Google is also actively trying to get a bigger piece of the travel market pie with its new Destinations search ability. Users use Google on their mobile phones to search for the continent, country or state that they want to travel to and add the word “destination” to see available flight and hotel prices.

Should travel agents be worried about these new developments?

Not really. Retail travel experts say Google and Skype don’t have the one thing that make travel agents stand out: customer service.

Travel agents explain that those who are satisfied with online bookings are primarily shopping for price and want minimum human interaction. But this is not true for the traditional travel agent’s clients, who are seeking professional advice and personal relationships as well as value-for-money.

Travel Counsellors South Africa joins ASATA fold

JOHANNESBURG, MARCH 2015 – Home-based travel agency group Travel Counsellors and its 143 agents have this week officially joined the Association of Southern African Travel Agents (ASATA) as members.

The group comprises travel professionals who have consultancy experience in the travel industry and supports home-based Travel Counsellors with such services as marketing, training, technology, emergency contact and supplier deals, among others.

Travel Counsellors South Africa General Manager Mladen Lukic says the decision to become ASATA members is the result of the two parties having reached common ground on the group’s model. “We have always supported the value of ASATA and even joined the association in 2007. Our decision to leave ASATA was at the time due to a different points of view of retail travel segmentation.”

Supportive of ASATA’s role to foster compliance within the travel sector, Mladen says Travel Counsellors believes it is more important for businesses to work within the system. “Travel Counsellors have specific views that we want to air and we feel ASATA is the correct platform through which to do this instead of airing our views externally,” he said.

Welcoming Travel Counsellors’ decision to return to the ASATA fold, ASATA CEO Otto De Vries says: “The move serves to strengthen our industry at large and contributes to our efforts to promote the professionalism of the retail travel industry. “The addition of Travel Counsellors’ voice to that of ASATA’s will enhance our efforts to resolve issues that are impacting our industry at present.”

Online travel agents: you get what you pay for…

Consumer Watch journalist Wendy Knowler talks about the benefits of using a travel agent…

July 9 2012

Last November I incurred the wrath of many travel agents by featuring in this column the results of a Synovate survey which found that consumers could fly to domestic and international destinations far cheaper if they booked using online travel agencies instead of traditional ones.

The researchers had contacted 50 branches of six traditional travel agency groups, collecting hundreds of quotes for local and international destinations.

They compared pricing, consistency and quality of service.

The price differences for flights to Amsterdam, on the same dates, were the most alarming, with the quotes ranging from R6 000 to R14 300 from Cape Town, and from R7 429 to R12 426 from Joburg.

The survey was paid for by online travel agency Travelstart, which naturally had a vested interest in the outcome.

Travelstart chief executive Stephan Ekbergh was quoted as saying: “Consumers are realising that online travel agencies offer them the advantages of lower prices, greater transparency, more flexibility, convenience, a wider choice, and more control over their flight booking experience.”

Naturally, Robyn Christie, chief executive of the Association of SA Travel Agents (Asata) had a different view, saying the traditional travel agents’ service – for which clients pay a fee – included the negotiation of competitive rates, providing 24-hour access in the event of any unforeseen changes, and interpreting complicated fare rules to avoid unnecessary charges.

“The market is well versed with the virtues of the online booking agents,” she said, “but equally aware of the consequences of when things go wrong, which they do more often than not.”

“It is at these times when the value of a relationship with a travel company becomes essential.”

At the time, Travelstart was a member of Asata, but resigned shortly afterwards.

I have good reason to return to this story now.

In January I started exploring flight options to Vancouver, having agreed to meet my cousins across the globe in that city for a reunion at the end of June.

I sourced a couple of traditional travel agency quotes, then decided to try the online route for the first time.

I went with US-based online agency Orbitz, and settled on a quote considerably cheaper than the traditional agency ones I’d been given.

My route was Joburg-London-Vancouver, returning Vancouver-Toronto-New York-Joburg, on a mix of airlines – Virgin Atlantic, Air Canada and United, operated by SAA.

The fact that the main flights in both directions were delayed by many hours, causing major disruption to our schedule, was not Orbitz’s fault, of course, but the agency was guilty of shocking communication.

Virgin Atlantic’s Flight 602 from OR Tambo to Heathrow was scheduled to depart at 8.30pm on June 22.

At 3.30pm that day Orbitz sent me an e-mail saying it was delayed until around midnight, and the flight information at the airport confirmed this.

My parents and I had just finished dinner in the airport at around 9pm when my mother did an e-mail check and discovered an e-mail sent by Orbitz, saying the flight had taken off at 8.30pm as scheduled.

Panic-stricken, we raced back to the boarding gate to discover that the flight had yet to take off. As it turned out, it didn’t leave until 2am the following morning and we ended up getting to Vancouver 24 hours later than planned (see sidebar).

Worse was to come on my return, this time travelling alone. Concerned about my tight connection in New York, I called United Airlines from Vancouver on my departure day – June 30 – to say I’d be rushing to make the flight, and that I had no check-in baggage.

It referred me to SAA, where a chap called Oscar told me the flight from New York had been delayed from 11.15am the following day to 8.50pm.

It was the first I’d heard of it, and when I later called United I got even worse news – I was no longer booked on that flight.

Having held on for answers from Orbitz for well over an hour on a cellphone, a consultant told me SAA had indeed cancelled my New York to Joburg flight, and maybe I should ask Air Canada to refund that portion of my trip and buy a new ticket to get home.

Just like that. Sorry for you.

By then it was after 4pm on the Saturday, and SAA’s US customer care office was closed.

Orbitz’s customer service supervisor, Logan, followed up with the following e-mail, sent that evening, just hours before my departure from Vancouver: “We would like to informed (sic) you that your flight from JFK to JNB was just cancelled yesterday by South African Airways. We tried to reinstate the flight directly with the airline.

“However, their specialised department is currently closed.

“The best adviced (sic) that we give you is to confirm your flight directly with the airline’s counter.

“We do apologise for the inconvenience. Thank you!”

When I made it to the SAA counter at JFK the following morning – ironically in good time for the originally scheduled flight – they confirmed the almost 10-hour delay and the fact that I wasn’t booked on the flight.

But I was quickly reinstated by a charming and sympathetic supervisor, and sent to a nearby hotel for the day with a complimentary room and a lunch voucher.

Then came another e-mail from Orbitz.

“United Airlines flight 7916 departs New York John F Kennedy Intl (JFK) on time at 11.15am…”

Unbelievable. Another Orbitz e-mail with outdated departure information.

I tried to get hold of Orbitz last week, e-mailing “Logan” with a media query. I received a cellphone call from a blocked number with a message so garbled that I heard nothing apart from the words “New York”.

It could have been from Orbitz but I have no way of knowing.

I wrote back to Orbitz, asking for an e-mailed response, which hadn’t come at the time of writing.

So why was my New York to Joburg SAA flight cancelled, and why didn’t SAA contact me directly?

The airline’s customer service executive, Suretha Cruse, began by saying that the flight was delayed because an incoming flight left Joburg about 12 hours late on June 29, and the crew had to get their mandatory 48 hours’ rest before doing the New York to Joburg return flight.

“Our staff in Fort Lauderdale immediately made contact with customers who had contact or e-mail information on their reservations details, to advise them of the change in schedule,” Cruse said.

“Unfortunately we did not have your personal contact details on your reservation.”

So SAA sent a flight cancellation notice to its codeshare partner – United Airlines – which should have forwarded it to the “owner of the reservation”, Orbitz.

“For some inexplicable reason the flight cancellation message was generated, but not the reaccommodation message.

“Be assured that this matter is receiving priority by our IT team to avoid a recurrence of this nature. It is very unfortunate that this system failure caused the circumstances in question.

“We wish to express our humble and sincere apologies for the stress and frustration that you were subjected to as a result of the delay,” Cruse said.

As we boarded that SAA flight to Joburg at JFK, 10 hours later than scheduled, all passengers were handed a notice offering us a 25 percent discount on an SAA flight, valid for 12 months.

So yes, I got to Vancouver and back, having paid less than I would have had I done the booking via a traditional travel agency.

But frankly, I wouldn’t do it again, especially not in the case of multiple connections.

Because when things go wrong, as they do, you need the agency to which you paid your fare to be in your corner; to be accessible; to take ownership |of the problem and make it possible for you to be kept informed of any changes in good time.

As it was, I was fed conflicting, bewildering flight information, left to find out about crucial flight changes on my own, and abandoned to my fate.

Lesson learnt.

* In the US, up to 50 percent of flight bookings are made online but in SA that figure is just 5 percent.

Virgin Atlantic – not feeling the love

Most flight delays are unavoidable and beyond the control of airlines. What they do have control over, though, is how they treat passengers.

On the evening of June 22, several airlines, including Virgin Atlantic, were thrown into chaos by a fault in a flight planning system.

The flight my parents and I booked from Joburg to Heathrow, London, scheduled to depart at 8.30pm, was initially delayed until midnight, and left only at 2am.

Virgin Atlantic staff appeared at the boarding gate only very late that evening, then said very little.

No refreshments were provided to the waiting passengers. Having landed at Heathrow, we’d missed our Air Canada flight to Vancouver and were told by a Virgin rep waiting outside the plane to go to that airline’s transfer counter for help.

After we waited in that queue, Air Canada said it wasn’t its problem and directed us to the monstrous Virgin queue.

We stood in that queue for four and a half hours, during which time we weren’t offered any refreshments or approached by any Virgin official with help or advice.

Having finally made it to the desk, we were directed to a nearby hotel for Virgin-paid dinner, bed and breakfast, and issued with Air Canada tickets for a flight to Vancouver the next morning – 24 hours later than the one we’d been booked on.

I have since e-mailed Virgin Atlantic, questioning its handling of the delay, as well as its failure to provide refreshments on either end, which contradicts the airline’s website promises in the event of the kind of a delay that we experienced.

Responding, a Virgin spokesperson apologised and said a “thorough internal investigation” was being conducted “to ascertain exactly what took place”.
Twitter: @wendyknowler

Think before you solicit your employer’s clients

I heard recently of a senior travel consultant leaving her current position to start her own travel company and on her last day wrote a very endearing letter to her employer’s client base to advise them of her new business adventure and all the good reasons why they should move their commerce to her.

Now why is this not okay?

Firstly, her letter of employment has a clause that explicitly covers the petitioning of her employers clients, but more importantly because it is such an unethical act!

A data base of any proportion takes time, technology and tenacity and whilst it may be available to employees to access for work related business it is proprietary information and should be treated as such.  The Consumer Protection Act covers the consumer’s right to privacy and clearly an act of this nature invades this basic consumer right.  In addition, the consumer has the right to choose and they have clearly made their choice.

Data base management companies place a sizable price tag to their product and for good reason, so however great the temptation is to solicit names without permission, remember its wrong!

Become the trusted advisor…

We keep being told about the value of the travel consultant re-emerging as a trusted advisor in the Internet age.

And once again this was the thrust of a research report released by the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) last week which pinpoints the two greatest challenges for travel agents in the 21st century: demonstrating our relevance and value to consumers and suppliers and attracting and retaining a new generation of professionals.

CLIA defines the ‘Next Generation of Travel Advisors’ as having a strongly entrepreneurial “can do” mindset; a flexible and nimble business model that allows for quick leverage of changing technology, economic conditions and the competitive landscape; and accredited education and training in line with what is required in such a complex travel industry environment.

Here are some of the initiatives it says will ensure the “next generation” is fully equipped for success:

•    Research to better understand the market: Get a better understanding of the expectations of today’s travel consumes particularly Gen X and Gen Y generations;
•    Communications to reestablish the value of travel agents: A broad public outreach with a focus on the younger generation that communicates the value of working with a professional travel advisor;
•    Educating a new workforce: The industry must do a better job of attracting students enrolled in universities offering degrees in travel and tourism and hospitality management; and
•    Ways to build and leverage credibility: Provide and support professional development and certification programmes that promote high-level standards and will win the trust of the consumer.

If you want to read the full report, simply click here