Amid the chatter of OTAs versus direct booking, it can be easy to forget that up until the internet became a household staple, planning a trip was placed in the trusted hands of travel agents. In more modern times, do-it-yourself booking thrives—according to a recent study from the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA), nearly half of consumers polled booked through supplier websites, and 25 percent booked through an online travel agency (OTA) in the last 12 months. But the fact that so many people are into DIY booking doesn’t mean turning to a travel agent has become an antiquated practice.
“The story of travel agents’ demise is greatly overstated,” says Zane Kerby, CEO of ASTA. But it is also undeniable that in recent years, agents have grown in popularity among travelers. The same study, funded by Carnival Corporation and conducted by market research firm TNS Global, found that 23 percent of travelers polled booked trips through travel agents. Not only is that nearly on the same level as OTAs, but it also marked the highest share among other competitors in the past three years.
Much like the driving force for many other aspects of the industry, the reason for the spike can be credited to millennials. With their desire to explore new territory and immerse themselves in local culture, travel agencies that belong to networks like Virtuoso are finding that compared to Gen X, baby boomers, and matures, millennials have been the most loyal clients over the last several years.
“We have a category of products we call our destinations and experiences portfolio—bespoke or unique products,” says David Kolner, senior vice president of global member partnerships at Virtuoso.
“Millennials spent 38 percent of their budget on destinations and experiences, which is actually the highest of any generational segment. What you see them looking for is something that you can’t Google.”
While individual web searches can provide tips and trends for the best destinations, young travelers are seemingly realizing that advice from experienced and well-traveled agents can provide deeper insight. But millennials are not simply looking to agents for a special travel experience. As social and political concerns continue to grip all corners of the globe, along with health threats like the spread of the Zika virus, travelers of all generations are looking for advice on the safest destinations.
“Any kind of disruption to the system or any kind of global events that happen cause people to pause and realize that travel is a very personal event,” describes Kerby. “It’s really amazing, because people call their travel agent asking them, ‘Should I go on this trip?’ And in reality, a travel agent can only present the risks and the benefits.”
Adds Kolner, “Travel agents know the ins and outs of what’s really happening versus all the hype or even fake news that’s out there about different destinations. They could recommend another destination with incredible value or a location that, with precautions, is not a dangerous destination to visit,” he says.
Regardless of the reasoning behind turning to a travel agent, Kolner insists that those who book a trip with the aid of a real adviser make for better hotel guests—and bigger spenders.
“They’re really the highest value clients. And I think that’s because advisers can sell a property in a way an OTA can’t,” Kolner says. “The client comes better prepared to the property to take full advantage of the services and benefits.”
Not only will guests be more excited to check out the spa they’ve heard so much about or dine at the most highly recommended on-site restaurant, but the adviser is also more likely to sell the value of a higher-priced room, because they are able to show potential guests value-adds that a website might not be programmed to showcase. Kolner says that Virtuoso clients have been proven to produce the highest ADR for the hotels they visit. “We feel the adviser actually is just an incredible value in delivering that type of client to the hotels,” says Kolner. “You can’t find these people anywhere else.”