For Travel Agencies, Specialization is Key to Survival

EastValley Tribune: In the years after Susan Doyle founded Mill Avenue Travel in 1984, her office had 10 employees that did almost all of its business booking airline flights.

Then, the Internet plugged into more homes, and consumer travel sites such as Travelocity, Expedia and Priceline were not far behind, changing the nature of Doyle’s business forever.

Today, almost 80 percent of travelers do some part of their booking online, forcing travel agencies to change their business models to survive. There were 32,000 accredited travel agencies in the U.S. in 1998; that number has shrunk to 9,386, according to a March 2010 survey by the Airlines Reporting Corporation.

“You see fewer brick-and-mortar agencies,” Doyle said. “There were 700 of them in the Valley 25 years ago, and I bet there’s not 150 now. The technology allows you to do it from anywhere.”

To make matters worse, the sluggish economy has hit travel agencies especially hard. Those agents that survive have to specialize. On its website, Tempe’s Mill Avenue Travel trumpets its ability to plan honeymoon packages and island vacations. Sue Sinclair Travel Center of east Mesa tailors to retirees.

“Customers look for airline fares they like on the Internet, then come out and buy through us,” said the 76-year-old Sinclair, who opened her agency in 1979 and has been in the travel business since 1954. “Most of the time, they don’t want to put credit card information on the Internet.”

And there are always complex vacations that are not as easy to book by oneself, such as a European tour or cruise. Doyle books frequent trips to Italy, where customers do not want to join a large tour group, nor land in Rome with just a hotel reservation.

“I look for hotels that I know will be in a good location for them, put together a proposal that will include cities and transportation between them, and half-day or day-long tours,” Doyle said. “You can do the half-day tour — see the Sistine Chapel, the Coliseum, ancient Rome — and then be on your own.”

To cut overhead expenses, Mill Avenue Travel merged with Santa Barbara, Calif.-based Your Travel Center in 2006. The merger left Doyle with four in-office employees, but 200 that work from home — a growing trend in the industry. Staci Blunt has operated Chandler-based Vacation Visions from her home office since 2003.

“More and more people do the little bookings on their own,” said Blunt, a 20-year travel industry veteran. “I still get calls about booking a flight to Los Angeles, and I say that I’d be happy to do it, but I would have to charge a service fee. I usually give them tips about doing it themselves, but ask them to keep me in mind when they want to book a vacation package. And people are usually happy to do that.”

In search of new revenue streams, Sinclair started booking motor coach tours and escorted tour groups abroad. She had to reduce the escorting after the recession forced her to cut hours for her six employees. “Those jobs still needed to be done, which meant I had to do them,” Sinclair said. “It’s harder to get away to (lead a tour) now. The recession has been hard on everyone.”

The species may be less populous, but travel agents will not go the way of dinosaurs because of something a website cannot provide— personal service.

“If you’ve booked online and had a problem, you’ve found that there’s not always someone available to help,” Doyle said. “It’s certainly hard to find someone to do a favor. There’s an inherent benefit in using a travel agent in that you have someone to go to if there’s an issue.”


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