Like any industry, travel has been profoundly changed by advancements in technology. How people research, book and experience a trip is completely different than it was just 20 years ago.
Yet moving the travel industry from the offline world to online hasn’t been without its challenges - not least because travel is inherently about a physical experience.
Travel is about seeing, doing, tasting, touching, meeting.
It’s about human interaction.
And while the foundation of our coverage at PhocusWire is focused on how online systems have transformed the travel process, the offline component - the agencies, the technologies, the suppliers that have a person-to-person element to their services - remains very much at play.
First up in this month’s series on the offline travel market, we look at the traditional agency model to understand the audience it still serves and how it has continued to stay relevant.
According to Phocuswright, as of the end of 2017, more than
half (52%) of all travel booked in the United States still was booked offline,
via travel agencies, travel management companies, phone and walk-ups.
And though the overall percentage of travel booked offline
is declining year over year, for some segments it is actually on the rise.
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Travel agent sales of traditional tours and packages
increased 4% in 2017 to nearly $9 billion, according to Phocuswright’s U.S.
Cruise and Packaged Travel report.
The numbers are even stronger for cruise sales. Travel agent
sales of cruises increased 5% in 2017 to reach $11.5 billion and accounted for
two-thirds of all cruise sales.
Traditional agents’ strength and longevity in selling
vacation packages and cruises “indicates
that consumers aren't making their purchasing decisions based just on channel,
but on personal service and advice as well,” writes Phocuswright analyst
Valerie Wilson Travel co-owner and co-president Jennifer
Wilson-Buttigieg certainly agrees with that analysis.
A tradition of personalized service and expertise has enabled her agency to create relationships with clients and suppliers that
have endured for more than 35 years, since her mother - the company's namesake - founded
the firm in 1981.
“We look at travel as not just as a commodity, not just as a
transaction, but doing business with people that we like and enjoy. We look
at it as lasting relationships,” Wilson-Buttigieg says.
Headquartered in New York
City, Valerie Wilson Travel has 14 locations around the United States and a
network of more than 315 travel advisors and associates serving luxury leisure and business travelers around the globe.
While the development of technology over the past several
decades has changed how the firm interacts with clients and suppliers,
Wilson-Buttigieg says it has not changed the core strength of its service: a
rapport with those audiences.
We look at travel as not just as a commodity, not just as a transaction, but doing business with people that we like and enjoy.
Jennifer Wilson-Buttigieg - Valerie Wilson Travel
“Whether the mode of communication is an email or an instant
message, it’s the same continuity of message as it was 30 years ago when it was
a Telex. That continuity - regardless of how it occurs - is the same,” she
Valerie Wilson Travel uses a variety of online and
offline opportunities to connect with its clients and suppliers, including
email newsletters, a blog and face-to-face events, which are a mix networking and
bring in our 200 most preferred clients for a cocktail reception and bring in our
preferred suppliers and we match them up and, over cocktails, significantly
close an amount of business for the coming year,” Wilson-Buttigieg says.
And though new distribution channels have opened up since
the firm’s founding, she says its focus on personalized service for luxury clientele
has allowed the agency to not just survive, but thrive.
“We never really lost business,” she says.
are smart enough to realize that yes, our clients will always try something at
least once. You’ll go on Expedia, you’ll go on Kayak, you’ll try an airline
website, but you’re probably going to get burned once or twice.
realize for a simple airline ticket it may be fine, but for a complicated
business trip or hedge fund road trip or a safari, you want to use a
World Travel Holdings straddles
the online and offline worlds of travel in how it functions as a company and how it works with clients, with the ultimate goal of providing options.
For the most part, the company does not have physical locations.
of its 1,100 employees, including 600 direct-to-consumer agents, work from home
in 38 states around the country and sell through its 13 owned brands and
licensed private-label partners, including brands marketed by a number of
airline, hospitality and retail companies. A separate division coordinates the work of 1,200
home-based franchisees and 500 independent agents.
But while these agents handle sales through online channels - websites, chat functions, email - the services they provide are more in the
style of a brick-and-mortar agency.
World Travel Holdings’ senior vice president of
customer care and luxury travel holdings, Jeff Smith, says much of its business -as high as 60% of bookings through some of its direct-to-consumer-brands - are
done in an offline, agent-assisted fashion.
“We seek to work with customers the way they want to work
with us,” he says.
“If they choose to interact purely with an agent, we
certainly want to provide that experience. They can have a dedicated agent that
they can reach out to personally and work with every step of the way from
shopping to booking to managing all the steps that are necessary in that book-to-depart
"Or that customer can choose to operate independently, autonomously
through booking online, then we offer them a series of communications that
will allow them to carry themselves through that book-to depart-window.”
That dedication to offering customers choice is also the
reason Smith says the company operates around the clock.
I don’t see a world in cruise distribution when people won’t need opinions, guidance, reassurance and some specific expertise that may not be able to be gleaned from a website.
Jeff Smith - World Travel Holdings
“We’re here 24/7, 365 [days a year],” Smith says. “That’s a
commitment we made about 10 years ago at a considerable expense, but we think
it’s important. Our customers are all over the world, in every time zone, and
we just have to be here for them, always.”
The majority of World Travel Holdings' business is cruise distribution,
and Smith says the complex nature of cruising options and itineraries is why consumers
are more likely to want assistance when booking a cruise vacation than other types
of leisure travel.
“I go back to when we literally had almost no technology. Shopping
for a cruise was something you did almost exclusively with an agent with very
little insight into the full breadth of availability and options,” Smith says.
“When we brought intelligent cruise search to all of our
customers in all of our brands, the transaction was still purely offline. The
shift to transacting online has been gradual.”
And at the core of its services, he says, are the agents, many
with more than 15 years of experience who have developed deep relationships
with their clients and vast knowledge of the industry.
“I don’t see a world in cruise distribution when people won’t
need opinions, guidance, reassurance and some specific expertise that may not
be able to be gleaned from a website,” Smith says.