Travelers turn back to travel agents

For years, it looked as though the travel agent had gone the way of the milkman. As online booking sites soared in popularity, travel agents became the butt of jokes. But the travel agent has been given a reprieve, as travelers are starting to need vacations from planning their vacations.

“Not only are customers confused and frustrated by new airline fees and events, but they are bombarded by social media,” said John Clifford, president of the luxury travel consultancy “Everyone is trying to tell you where you should stay, where you should eat, what you should do.”

A study by Forrester Research found that the number of leisure travelers who enjoyed using the Web to plan and book their vacations dropped from 53 percent in 2007 to 47 percent in 2010. And in an American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) survey, 44 percent of agents said that they had more clients in 2010 than they’d had the previous year, with the strongest rebound in rail and hotel reservations.

Travelers “don’t have hours to spend on research to compare multiple flights, multiple cruises, multiple packages,” said Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst at Forrester Research. “It’s not unlike doing your taxes. Depending on who you are, what your priorities are, there are some people who will choose to do it themselves or to use a professional.”

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This has been an ongoing theme and somewhat bogus debate now for years. The original argument that travel agents will all disappear was made in the early days of the web, mostly by people not familiar with the travel industry.

While the vast number of order takers for airline tickets have indeed gone the way of the milkman, the remaining number are the ones who actually deserve the name travel agent or counselor.

What has helped spur this return is the evolution of online travel from being almost exclusively about air bookings to more involved transactions and ultimately trip planning. Those are much more complex functions that traditional OTA have not solved particularly well.

Now, that we are in the reality of web 2.0 travel intermediaries, be they traditional travel agents using web based tools or new online entrants offering trip planning tools integrated with social media will have a role to play in the marketplace.

Will there be a wholesale return to traditional travel agents by millions of web savvy travelers, I highly doubt it. Will those who master social web tools combined with specific knowledge of destinations and products thrive, sure they will.