The Comeback of the Travel Agent

How Travel Agents Could Be one of the Driving Forces That Helps Save the Industry

By Frances Kiradjian, Co-Founder & CEO of BLLA, StayBoutique and Boutique Money Group

The impact of the coronavirus continues to have reverberations throughout the world. On top of the devastating medical toll, certain industries are feeling the damaging financial consequences as well. Perhaps the industry most impacted by this disease is travel and tourism including hospitality.

This isn’t the first time the travel industry has suffered, so agents are well-equipped to handle the crisis. Traditional travel agents have been in emergency mode many times during the last two decades or so. Call center agents like American Express, CWT (formerly Carlson), and CCRA (the consortia I founded), who handle emergency calls from travel agency clients (especially corporate clients), have worked from home for nearly the last twenty years.

In fact, travel agencies were early adopters in training their agents to work remotely, designing technology to manage them. Many reasons caused this disruption:

-When an emergency occurs anywhere in the world, travel agents are on-call 24/7, 365 days a year. Pandemics, tornadoes, volcanoes, hurricanes, and war are just a few of the kinds of crises that travel agents have had to tackle to protect clients. Their staff volunteers to be on-call all times of the day and night, as needed. It takes a minute to get online to service stranded clients.

-When a client is stranded or seeking help in a country where they don’t speak the language, they can call a worldwide toll-free number or message them online and reach their agent directly or their agency’s designated emergency call center after hours. This is an important tool even for those people who do speak the language. These call centers can pull up a client’s record in the GDS (Global Distribution System like Sabre, Amadeus) and access their information, giving agents full authority to assist in whatever the client needs, from rebooking air/hotel/car service to contacting their loved ones in case they couldn’t. Things have changed a bit as far as where bookings originate, but one thing that hasn’t changed is the agent’s DNA to selflessly help travelers in crisis and in good times, helping them plan their business trips and vacations.

The current situation which we are heading into, with OTA’s (Online Travel Agencies), is that their call centers may be mostly located overseas. If they even have call centers in the U.S., they will be overrun very quickly and most likely not be able to manage the huge demand of incoming calls. The world is quickly closing these centers to abide by their country’s current rule of law regarding social distancing and working from home. Many are simply not equipped with appropriate logistics to handle virtual staff. They may be short of equipment, Wi-Fi may not be available, and privacy laws may be in effect (to protect a client’s personal information). 

This is where a travel agent steps in to help – regardless of where they are in the world. They were forced, basically, to learn to work virtually from home or on the beach, whatever it took to help their clients. This started occurring around 2003-2005 when mom and pop travel agencies went belly up and closed. The remaining stronger agencies became more organized and designed at-home agent programs like Virtuoso who is a global network of luxury host travel agencies, and others. These agencies called themselves “Host Agencies,” and they quickly designed sophisticated technology to allow their new base of At-Home Agents to access their systems and keep them integrated with preferred supplier rates and other industry standards. Other industries have adopted this same successful business model over the years, such as branding agencies and digital marketing agencies.

While OTAs will have a very difficult time currently, travel agency referral business for hotel stays and travel-related products will undoubtedly pick up for the time after the pandemic and longer, as these agents create long-term personal relationships with both their corporate and leisure clients during this time of crisis. They are professionals who are experienced, dedicated, and personally knowledgeable about the intricacies of travel, travel vendors, and destinations. Their time to shine has come full circle.

The standards that travel agents have created in the last twenty years – standards emphasizing individual care and prompt service from anywhere – will prove to be one way these individuals will help boost the industry and protect it in the wake of this disruption.

Background
Frances Kiradjian has years of experience understanding the full dynamics of both the travel agency business and travel-related call centers. She worked previously for Carlson Travel and then left to launch a negotiated rate hotel program in 1993 called CCRA (the agency call center was already established), which she sold her shares in 2005. She was always an advocate for travel agents, fully comprehending their enormous value even while the world was saying otherwise.

During a keynote presentation at one of the world’s largest travel agency consortium conferences, she asked 2,000 agents sitting in the audience if they believed in the future of travel agents. If the answer was yes, they should stand up and ring their bell (she had placed large bells tied with purple ribbons at each place setting – inspired by the movie The Polar Express). The room exploded into a celebration of believers! She trusted them so much that she staked her future and her family’s future on them, having spent 15 years building a business to support them. In 2006, after the sale took full effect, she decided to leave the company when the current management philosophy turned another direction. This is when, in 2009, Kiradjian founded the first organization for the global boutique hotel industry known worldwide as BLLA, the Boutique Lifestyle Leaders Association