I first struck up a conversation with Tom Lewis via Twitter. He is a travel agent with Alliance Travel Partners, which is a Virtuoso affiliate (this means they are a part of a luxury travel agent consortium). While the majority of Lewis’ clients want high-end travel, he can book anything.
Lewis told me about a study that found that only a very small percent of people under the age of 35 use travel agents. He said the industry is baffled as to why younger people are not using them and doesn’t know how to reach us. I don’t know many people my age who use travel agents, so I was equally interested in how they could be beneficial to Gen X and Gen Y travelers who are accustomed to the convenience of online booking.
I called Tom this week to learn why 20somethings should think twice before booking their next trip online. Read the interview below, and be sure to follow Tom on Twitter at @tomtravel2.
Emily Gerson: As a travel agent, do you work with 20somethings? Why would they want to use a travel agent?
Tom Lewis: We are high-end travel agents, but surprisingly, I have quite a few clients who are in their 20s. Its been growing by word of mouth within that group. I’m 54, I have two daughters – one is 27 and one is 25. The 27-year-old’s husband works for Wells Fargo and most of his friends are business majors, lawyers, and other young professionals. Once I got them hooked on my services, they started referring me to their friends. People in their 20s are a generation that trusts their friends. That’s where this industry has done a poor job – getting its foot in the door. Once people use me, they get their friends to call me. It’s more personal.
Certainly if they’re just booking a flight from Phoenix to L.A., they don’t call me – it’s not cost-effective. The advantage I can give them is that I don’t just book them a room in a rate category – you can do that on the Internet. If a young client calls me and they booked a room at Shutters in Santa Monica, I contact the management and let them know they’re coming. They have a room in a certain category, but there’s a good chance they’ll get a room upgrade. There’s also a good chance they’ll get an amenity when they get to the room – maybe a bottle of Champaign, wine, or a fruit plate. With Virtuoso, if I’m booking a very high-end hotel, a lot of those things are guaranteed. And it’s the exact same price as you can book on travel websites.
Another advantage that I’d emphasize is that booking your own travel costs you time. The average person visits 27 websites before they book in order to gather information and compare prices. If you call or email me, within 15 minutes I can find the same information. I can give you price and itinerary in two phone calls. It’s so much easier.
EG: What are some of the most common misconceptions you see amongst 20somethings in regards to travel agents?
TL: The main one is that it’s too expensive. There are rare occasions when there are Internet specials we cant match, but about 95% of time, that cheap rate you see on Internet is the same one I’m seeing on my computer. And often, a travel agent can get you a better deal than what you’re seeing online. We can actually save them money. You retain the same price but are getting a better room and things added to it – it’s a better deal. The perception is that it’s too expensive, but the reality is that its often more expensive to use Internet. The reason I believe that most people your age assume they should book on Internet is they assume it’s always cheaper.
The other misconception is that it’s not cool. The cool thing is to go online and book your own travel. Do you think Ashton Kutcher books his own travel? Do you think Blake Lively books her own travel? No. The people who 20somethings aspire to be – they all use travel agents.
EG: I’ve read several articles recently that said travel agents were making a comeback. Do you think this is true?
TL: The tide has definitely turned so that we’re starting to win back market share. There are a number of reasons for that. I’d encourage you to do a Twitter search for the names of large travel websites and sucks or http://maiden-voyage-travel.com/fail. You will see that there are a lot of people are not happy with the service they get from these companies. A recently survey said only 27% of people who book all travel on the Internet are satisfied or very satisfied with the process.
Nobody has done survey like that on travel agents, but once we have gotten a customer into our office and booked a trip for them and they’ve returned, about 95% of them call us back. There’s a reason for that. We’re personable, it’s personal, we do whatever we can to make sure that the client is satisfied and has a great trip. With the Internet, you’re on your own. If something goes wrong, their customer service is very poor. With us, if you get to hotel and it doesn’t meet your expectations, we want you to call us. We may not be able to fix it, but chances are if we get on the phone with the management, we may be able to get you better room. However, there are some travel agents who are less professional and less full-service, who are basically taking orders, so you can’t really say that all travel agents do the same thing.
EG: If I was using a travel agent for the first time, how do I know what to look for?
TL: Ask them if they provide service after the sale, so in other words, if you show up at the hotel and they show you to your room and it’s not what you believed you are getting, will they intervene with the hotel and try to get you a better room?
I would also ask if the travel agent is networking. We spend a tremendous amount of time and energy meeting with hotels, hotel sales reps and managers, so when our clients go to that hotel we have established a relationship with that person. Here’s an analogy; a very well-networked travel agent doesn’t know the bouncer at the exclusive club you want to go into, but they know the person who made the list. We can get you on the list, so when you show up you don’t have to say, “This room isn’t what I wanted” – you will get there and the room is the way you wanted, and will probably be better than you expected. We contact the people and let them know we have clients coming. Often we’ll have physically stayed at hotel or done a site inspection. I can ask for room in certain part of resort because I know it will suit my client better.
Credentials and certifications are not a bad thing to look for because it shows they’ve taken the time to get trained, but not it’s necessary. To me it’s more a matter of asking the agent, “What do you do to educate yourself? What type of training do you do? Do you go to industry events?” I take training from cruise lines, tour companies, hotel chains, and so on.
EG: What types of travels do you book for your younger clients?
TL: Most of my young clients do trips like urban hotel stays in California – it’s usually pretty straightforward. Many of them could have booked themselves, but I got them extras like room upgrades, free extras, bottle of wine upon showing up – things they wouldn’t have online. I booked a trip to Vancouver and Victoria for one couple and I outlined some of the activities they could do. I have also done Hawaii and Mexico resort stays, though I plan to book more complex stays eventually. I’ve found that young professionals don’t have much vacation time – most of the people I work with are looking more to decompress than to go and see everything.
Have you ever used a travel agent before? If not, would you consider using one? What do you think travel agents could do better to reach out to us?