TORONTO — The travelling public is realizing what the trade has known all along: travel agents are back. And in fact, they never left.
The comeback of the travel agent headlines our top travel trends of 2016 and it’s sweet vindication after years of agents being written off in the wake of the Internet and OTAs.
A recent headline in the National Post proclaimed ‘Travel agents haven’t been replaced by the Internet – in fact they’re more in demand than ever’.
Meanwhile a new Expedia study shows that travellers search an average of 48 times on eight different sites before booking a flight.
Faced with that prospect, who wouldn’t use a travel agent?
“With Trafalgar, travel agents never went out of style,” said Wolf Paunic, president of Trafalgar Canada.
On its fam trips Trafalgar invites a select group of committed agents and jointly develops business based on their experience of the destination.
“Our recent Northern Spain fam generated four groups already – and significant revenue for our agent partners,” said Paunic.
Some people still don’t realize that a travel agent will often get the same pricing or even better pricing than what they can find on the Internet, said Lynda Sinclair, Vice President Leisure Travel, Vision Travel Solutions. With the abundance of information available on the Internet, the company is finding that travellers are returning to agents to help make better travel decisions.
Another travel agency group, Vacation.com, is seeing the same trend. “Clearly all predictions of the so called ‘death of the travel agent’ have not come to fruition,” Christine James, CTM, Vice President Canada, Vacation.com (Canada), Inc.
“The retail travel community still continues to not just survive but thrive in the face of the looming threats of the feared OTAs,” said James. “While there’s no doubt that more consumers are turning to the OTA’s for commodity transactions, there’s still significant percentage that recognizes the value of consulting a travel professional, especially when it comes to higher end/luxury or more exotic travel.”
James and her husband recently returned from a Christmas Markets Rhine river cruise, where every one of the 140 guests James spoke to onboard reported that they booked through their travel professional and not an OTA.
Agents are staying ahead of the curve by making themselves into destination and product experts. “They do the research … not the obvious going online and visiting sites, but the more intimate research such as fam trips, and, of course, in [our case] they come to the experts in a particular destination and/or hotel,” said Cristina Rende, Director, Arts & Leisure Tours / Travel with Flair.
“The bottom line is, Canadian travellers are becoming more specialized in their tastes and desires. They go to travel agents because agents know more than them as to how to fulfill these specialized tastes.”
Travel agents also open the door to the world of adventure and sustainable travel, said Denise Harper, Director of Sales, Canada for G Adventures. “There’s no doubt that the agent community is crucial in connecting us to a wider audience,” she said.
One recent G Adventures booking came from an agent whose clients were interested in Costa Rica – for an all-inclusive holiday. After asking them why they wanted Costa Rica and what they wanted out of their holiday, the agent recommended G Adventures. “After realizing the limitations of an all-inclusive resort and the amount of travel time required for the ‘day trips’, G Adventures was a natural fit.”
Cris David, President, Insight Vacations Canada adds that “many of our guests simply would not find their way to our product if they were not guided by agents to understand the many benefits of choosing our mode of travel. … Agents bring ease and simplicity to what otherwise could be a complex transaction … and contribute passion, inspiration and peace of mind during the planning and booking phase of the holiday – essential emotional aspects of the process which, increasingly, consumers are realizing they want, need, and cannot get from the Internet.”
Four more trends we’re watching for 2016
Cuba’s sweet spot
As the number of Americans arriving in Cuba slowly but surely climbs, the number of Canadians and Europeans heading to the island will stay high as everyone clamours to see the old Cuba they know and love, before it changes. While new hotel product in Cuba is currently coming at a rate of 2,000 rooms per year, starting in 2018, that figure will double to 4,000 rooms per year. While other Caribbean destinations might feel the sting of Cuba’s popularity, they could also benefit as some travellers steer clear of the island altogether.
Rollin’ down the river
The river cruise trend seems unstoppable. There are new ships galore. Everyone is waiting to see what Crystal Cruises brings to the table with its much-anticipated river cruise product starting in summer 2016. Meanwhile market leader Viking River Cruises christened 12 new ships on a single day last March. Less than a million travellers sailed on a river cruise ship in 2015, a small fraction of the 23 million people who cruised overall, according to Richard Marnell, Viking Cruises’ Senior VP of Marketing. There’s lots of room for growth.
Niche goes big
Niche travel will continue to grow in 2016, notably wellness travel and foodie tourism. Intrepid Travel recently expanded its range of culinary tours with two new trips in Eastern Europe. Countries can be niche too, and as adventure tour operators like Intrepid and G Adventures push the envelope on emerging destinations, from Sri Lanka to Kazakhstan, what might have sounded like an unthinkable place to visit just a couple of years ago is now do-able, even if it’s not for every client.
The cost of travel
As long as the price of oil remains stable, airfares are expected to remain flat in 2016. Hotel rates, meanwhile, are pegged to rise by 3 – 5% (although the popularity of alternatives like Airbnb could put downward pressure on rates). Look for more interest in customized private day tours as mid-market clients realize the value of sightseeing itineraries that match exactly what they want to see.
This article originally appeared in the January 7th, 2016 issue of Travelweek. To subscribe to Travelweek, click here.