In this ‘Exponential Era’ of digital noise, the world needs travel agents more than ever

This story originally ran in the Dec. 12, 2019 issue of Travelweek magazine. To get Travelweek delivered to your agency for free, subscribe here.

TORONTO — Back in the mid-1990s more than a few people brushed off the Internet as ‘just a fad’.

They were wrong, of course, but that doesn’t mean that the Internet has lived up to all of its hype, especially where travel is concerned.

The Internet, with its supplier booking engines and OTAs, just about completely eradicated basic point-to-point air bookings from traditional travel agencies. Huge volumes of cruise, hotel, tour and package bookings also went online.

But for all the bookings that traditional travel agents lost to the Internet over the years, more than a few have been won back as overwhelmed online bookers returned to travel agents, grateful for their product knowledge and advice.

Everything old is new again, and that includes travel planning expertise and personalized service – from an actual person, no less.

And that’s why this is the dawn of a new age for travel agents, says disruption strategist Shawn Kanungo.

Calling the Internet “the largest copying machine on the planet” in a “drag and drop world”, an inexhaustible portal of information that somehow over the years has led to less originality, not more, Kanungo told delegates at the recent ACTA Travel Agency Leadership Summit that travellers need sound advice, guidance and fresh inspiration from travel agents, more than ever before.

The current fixation on social media, along with all the other digital obsessions taking up our time and attention span, “means we have the Internet times 10,” says Kanungo. Like many other strategists, he has dubbed this ‘the exponential era’.

To effectively cut through all the noise, says Kanungo, people skills will shine, especially skills like these: imagination, creativity, empathy, intuition, communication, improvisation and emotional intelligence. Travel agents, nimble thinkers by necessity and people-people by nature, have these qualities in droves.

Technology, once the new frontier, “is now just another commodity,” says Kanungo. Speed is the new currency. And so is creativity when it comes to selling and designing travel itineraries.

Says Kanungo: “I believe selling travel is going to be a lot more about storytelling. You’re in the escape business.”

And, he adds, “companies that understand that consumers really want tailored experiences are the ones who will win in the future.”

A travel agent’s work even has global implications, says Kanungo. Technology has helped build new relationships, but it’s also led us to retreat into our own narrow worlds. Fear-mongering from the world’s superpowers on the political stage doesn’t help. Travel, says Kanungo, keeps minds open. “We are fundamentally isolating ourselves. And that’s why the work that you do is so much more important than at any other time in history,” he told agents. “Travel and exploration are what make us human, and I hope you can see disruption as an opportunity, and see that this is the greatest era for travel agents.”

That includes all travel agents, whether storefront or home-based. The disrupted have become the disruptors in a surprising turn of events that has traditional travel agents winning some web-weary clients back from online booking channels, even as the migration to digital-everything marches on.

As noted in part 1 of this series, presence is everything for retailers. The same market forces that in the mid-1990s drove bricks-and-mortar retailers to also set up shop online are now, 25 years later, bringing some big players into the storefront sphere. Host agencies including The Travel Agent Next Door with its new storefront division The Agency Solution, and OTA giant, which just opened a new bricks-and-mortar location in downtown Toronto, are two examples of travel industry heavyweights singing the praises of the storefront model.

The storefront trend is even seeing traction with Amazon. Yes, Amazon, the ultimate online disruptor for just about everything retail, has storefronts. For now they’re cashless grocery stores where consumers can literally grab-and-go, with Amazon’s ‘Just Walk Out Technology’ that detects when products are taken from or returned to the shelves. Later, Amazon sends the shopper a receipt and charges their Amazon account. There are now Amazon Go stores in Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco and New York City.

Meanwhile other companies are promoting in-store storefront services with tongue-in-cheek campaigns that take a humourous swipe at online shopping. The holiday ads for fashion and housewares retailer Marshalls, Winners and HomeSense encourage shoppers to “discover the thrill of offline shopping” with a shopping excursion to one of their bricks-and-mortar stores. One highlight? “Instant ‘add-to-cart’ technology”, and a visual of a happy shopper putting a sweater in her shopping cart. Not a point-and-click cart on a screen, but an actual cart.

It’s the retail revolution, 2.0.

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