The Travel Agency Industry: Past, Present and Future

June 12, 2021

The travel industry has seen some of the most profound changes in modern business, and it’s taken just three words to dismantle the status quo: Airbnb, Skyscanner, Uber.

These three platforms have transformed the way we think about domestic and international travel. However, they didn’t emerge without warning, and reflect a broader change in how consumers are empowered to get what they want, when they want it.

Yet the travel agency model persists, and those who see its digitalisation as an opportunity not a threat are flourishing.

So it’s the responsibility of travel agencies to empower themselves with the best tools of the trade, and communicate their expertise to those considering the DIY approach.

Below we explore how the travel agency industry has changed, and why travel agents who embrace disruption will safeguard their services for years to come.

DIY Travellers

Whether for business or for pleasure, travellers going it alone in the organisation and booking of their trip has become the norm.

For travel agents, the likes of Airbnb represent consumers assuming total control of what has traditionally been “left to the experts”. Why would the Average Joe enlist the help of a travel agent when he can search for and book an affordable, secure, well-located room at his own discretion?

Online hotel booking didn’t begin with Airbnb, but its human-to-human value offering has challenged the personalised service that travel agents have relied on to attract business.

And it’s not only in accommodation that agents feel they’re being under-cut. Booking a flight has truly never been easier than it is today. Using online tools like Skyscanner, consumers are empowered to search for deals, gauge layovers, and book complicated itineraries from the comfort of their lounge room.

These technologies have empowered consumers like never before, yet as the old adage goes, “with great power comes great responsibility”. These same empowered consumers have recognised that perhaps their flight deals aren’t the best, their Airbnb hosts aren’t the most accommodating and their itineraries aren’t the easiest to navigate.

Would-be DIY travellers have also recognised that organising any trip can be a headache and a half. And when business travellers become stranded in Mumbai with a cancelled flight, a hotel room in a building that doesn’t seem to exist, and an unexpected layover of 35 hours, this headache grows to a migraine.

Travel Agents Today

Travel agents and the agencies they work for know this well. They know that their services remain in need, despite a new latest-and-greatest do-it-yourself travel app launching every second day.

So what, then, is a travel agent’s selling point?

Is it simply removing the inevitable human error associated with do-it-yourself bookings?

Travel agencies have always leveraged personal service as a selling point for their business. They collaborate with you, the traveller, in crafting a trip that is tailored to your wants and needs. They also leverage their existing personal relationships with suppliers, like hotels and airlines, to deliver this package to you.

As Anne Scully of McCabe World Travel says, “If [travellers] book themselves, they’re just a credit card number.”

“I make a point of knowing the general manager of the hotel where they might be staying,” she says. “I usually call the GM the night before one of my clients arrives and see if they might be upgraded. If they book with a good agent, they’re known on arrival.”

However, as mentioned above, booking a room through a platform like Airbnb can be an even more personalised experience. Travellers deal directly with the owner of the room, who often occupies the house with them and acts as a host during their stay. This presents a whole other suite of potential limitations and issues, however the personal service remains.

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Travel Agents And Technology

In our comprehensive look at how the travel management profession is changing, we discussed how the highly specialised role now demands an agile and technological mind to master. Using the best technology available, travel managers have proven their worth to CFOs in facilitating positive and profitable business trips for their employees.

The benefits of technology led travel agencies are no less profound. Today, travel agents know that to compete with the digitalisation of consumer travel, they need to evolve the technology they use.

Streamlined travel management platforms allow agents to remove the guesswork involved in free online booking tools, and any traveller serious about finding the most convenient and economical way to get from A to B understands this. It’s the responsibility of travel agencies to communicate this point clearly and with data-based evidence.

For corporate travellers, enlisting the help of an agent is an absolute no-brainer. It’s no secret how complex business travel can be, especially when navigating unexpected changes to itineraries and strict corporate travel policies.

Travel agents with access to a powerful management tool can offer a service that can’t be matched by a DIY approach.

Travel Agents of Tomorrow

The only certainty in the travel agency industry is that uncertainty will reign supreme. The travel industry currently leads the world in Internet of Things spending, and the ramifications of this movement are still emerging.

However, it’s clear that consumers will be empowered to achieve most of what agents can by themselves. They just won’t be able to do so as accurately, as quickly, as economically or with as minuscule fuss as travel agents can.

The travel agencies of tomorrow must be armed with the most powerful travel management technology available.

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