Are travel agents worth it?
I have to give a lot of credit to the Internet. It has brought the world of e-commerce to our fingertips, allowing us to discover out-of-print books on Amazon, to purchase other people’s junk on eBay, and even to offer ridiculous bids for travel on Priceline. I honestly cannot imagine the world without it.
Yes, the Internet has brought a wealth of information to our fingertips — and to the fingertips of our clients. And yes, this is a good thing. An educated client is good client; an uneducated client soon morphs into the client from hell.
But the Internet has also set loose a scourge: the consumer hell-bent on making sure that I do not make a single penny for the work I do. I am not sure when education turned into extortion, but I am sure it’s a bad thing for consumers and travel agents alike.
Would you ask your doctor to discount your bill because you investigated some ailment on WebMD.com? Is your accountant’s advice worth less because you use Quicken? Would you ask F. Lee Bailey to reduce his fee because an ambulance-chaser told you he could do your legal work cheaper? My guess is that you would not. So why do so many consumers feel that travel agents should give discounts, make rebates and match online prices?
Are we not entitled to earn a living?
Half the problem is self-inflicted, I admit. Back in the days of dinosaurs and airline commissions, travel agents were happy to give away their advice for free; after all, they were being paid by the travel supplier, not the consumer. Now those commissions are gone and agents make their living from service fees and what little remains of commissions from other travel suppliers.
The other half of the problem is the fantastic sales job that the online travel providers have done convincing consumers that they can go it alone: Push some buttons, save some money, and get a great travel experience. In fact, there are plenty of times when you cango it alone, and I have no problem with that. But when you really need a travel agent, I resent the suggestion that I should rebate my hard-earned money or otherwise discount the trip.
Those who go it alone are usually not looking for a travel experience; they are looking for transportation. They just want to get from point A to point B at the lowest possible cost. Like gamblers, they are willing to take a chance on the experience. It’s OK if their trip doesn’t go as planned, because they figure they got a good deal. If something goes wrong, that’s OK too, because no travel agent got a cut of the action. “Overbooked flight? Cramped seating? Missed connection? No problem - I did the work and I saved 50 bucks.” That’s the thinking, and it makes a certain amount of sense if you’re the gambling type.
But if you are looking for advice — the same kind of thing you’d ask from your attorney, accountant or doctor — you should be OK with me making a little profit on your trip. Why? Because I have important information that will benefit you. I know about the client mix at different resorts and the personalities of cruise ships (yes, they do have personalities — ask your agent). I know the names of some amazing concierges in Europe and some fantastic hole-in-the-wall restaurants in Singapore. I’ve been in this business for more years than the Internet, and I know what will make for a great travel experience - and what won’t.
Yes, I know that you are absolutely sold on that all-inclusive resort with the shiny brochure. You know, the one with the beautiful facilities, the fabulous food, the luxurious accommodations and, of course, those hot bodies in the skimpy thongs! But, I also know that the pool is under renovation, the new chef is terrible, the rooms need refurbishing and — most importantly — most of the thongs you will see will be worn by older overweight foreign men with lots of back hair.
Please, take a moment and let that image sink in.
Now ask yourself: Is the middleman worth it?
I won’t deny that online travel providers and rebating or discounting agencies have their place. We live in a polarized consumer market where Macy’s and Wal-Mart, Le Bec-Fin and McDonald’s, The Ritz-Carlton and Motel 6 all find customers. I guess it boils down to what you want from your investment — and don’t kid yourself, your vacation dollars are definitely an investment: an investment in memories.
So don’t confuse the words “transportation” and “vacation”; they rhyme, but that’s about it. We are talking about experiences here. Do you deny a child his first visit to Disney World just to save $100? Do you forever kick yourself in the rear end for not taking that cruise with your mother because your bid was turned down on Priceline?
I have worked a long time to learn about this industry and I am more than happy to share my experiences with you for my fee or commission.
Your experience begins with mine.
John Frenaye is the president of JVE Group, Inc., a diversified company based in Annapolis, Md. With a background in business management, he writes about the travel industry as an insider with an outsider's perspective.
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