At a recent invite-only roundup for American Express-affiliated travel agents, the assembled agents were surveyed about how the Internet has impacted their businesses.
Traditionally, the Internet has been the demon when it comes to travel agents, often taking the brunt of "the travel agent is dead" narratives. However, the results show how the Internet has also positively impacted the travel agent business, especially when it comes to access to information and the ability to serve customers with the best itineraries.
Agents also find that consumers are more engaged and knowledgeable then ever, often doing their own research and ensuring that agents are finding them the best of the best.
Tony Gonchar, the VP of the US Representative Network at Amex Travel, sees this not only as a good sign for his own business but as a sea change for the public perception of travel agents:
“Smart, savvy travel professionals are harnessing the power of the Internet to create extraordinary experiences for their customers. As technology advances, so do expectations. Customers are digital omnivores, consuming information across multiple devices, 24 hours-a-day, from hundreds – even thousands – of sources. Our travel counselors are able to help customers cut through the information overload to create the ultimate travel experience.”
The results, which came from a small and specific subset of 200 surveyed agents, are as follows:
- Consumers continue to be overwhelmed, allowing agents to further enhance their value: 61% of respondents strongly agree that the Internet has made their jobs more efficient.
- Consumer intelligence is shifting power in the industry: 52% of travel counselors strongly agree that consumers are more informed.
- Specialization and regional focus continue to be vital for agents: 38% of agents say that a "deep knowledge of a particular destination or travel experience, such as family, culinary, or adventure travel, will be the most important tool in their arsenal as the travel industry evolves over the next five years."
- Word-of-mouth is the most vital marketing for agents: 75% of their business is from long-term relationships and referrals.
- Advance planning is a continuing trend: 43% of the survey’s respondents reported customers were booking travel further ahead in 2014 versus 2013.
- Spend among surveyed agents customers is also projected to stay the same or grow: 92% of customers were planning to spend at least as much, if not more, on trips in 2014 versus 2013.
- Exotic locals are rising in appeal: 54% of travel counselors seeing a growing preference for international destinations. Among the places with the highest demand: Southeast Asia, Rio de Janeiro, New Zealand, Croatia and Costa Rica.
- As far as activities during travel, respondents identified the following reasons for customer travel: Arts and culture (32%), ultra-luxury travel (27%), culinary travel (21%) and adventure travel (16%).
- The rise of the megaship and also the more compact luxury ships is leading to a healthy interest in cruising: 42% report that more travelers are cruising next year. River cruising is thriving, and reflecting the continued investment in new river ships, 76% see growth in river cruising.
One of the most pressing concerns of the consumer today is the over-information of the Internet. This creates an overwhelming amount of noise to push through, making agents more valuable to travelers.
Gonchar emphasizes this point:
“More information does not necessarily lead to better decision-making. Consumers are overwhelmed by the wealth of travel material and crave guidance and expertise. Our travel counselors give a level of personalization and expertise that customers can’t just search on the Internet.”
The survey was conducted among invite-only participants at the American Express Retail Travel Learning Forum and National Summit earlier this month.
NB: World type image courtesy Shutterstock.