What’s the Point of a Travel Agent in 2019 (And What Can They Do for Me)?

Besides booking flights, they can occasionally be relied upon to prevent a government-ordered assassination, or even help you outrun an erupting volcano.

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“I often say there’s probably five or six people alive today [that], if I wasn’t born, wouldn’t be here, so at least I did something.” That’s an impressive way to kick off your online bio, but Michael Beagelman isn’t a part-time search-and-rescue pilot, a hostage negotiator or even a Heimlich maneuver specialist — he’s a travel agent, and saving lives is all part of the service.

Based in London, Beagelman started out in the 1970s, catering for the travel needs of rock bands like AC/DC and Led Zeppelin, and ended up specializing in top-ranking corporate clients, celebrities and officials traveling to high-risk destinations. When terrorists with guns and grenades stormed through Mumbai’s Taj Mahal Palace Hotel on the night of November 26, 2008, targeting Westerners and killing 32 people, two of Beagelman’s clients, a British woman and her new husband on their honeymoon, were rescued thanks to having signed up to his 24-hour remote concierge service. Beagelman stayed in constant text contact with her while gunmen prowled the corridors, keeping U.K. officials on the ground apprised of his clients’ location until Indian soldiers were eventually able to haul the couple out.

Another grateful Beagelman client is Canadian attorney Robert Amsterdam, who has gone on record saying his travel agent’s expertise and attention to detail saved his life when he was representing the Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky — an outspoken opponent of Vladimir Putin’s regime — in Moscow in 2005. In a 2017 article for the trade magazine Travel Weekly, Amsterdam recalls that he received a 2 a.m. call from Beagelman, “to let me know that a team of 12 Russian Federal Security Service officers were on their way to my hotel room to arrest me. He advised me to throw on a bathrobe and claim I was just getting out of the shower in order to buy time.”

That time allowed him to make calls to contacts in high places, which proved enough to make the snatch team think twice. “As this was an extrajudicial arrest, I can only imagine what might have happened to me if I’d gone with them in the middle of the night,” he explains, citing the suspicious deaths of several others involved in the case. Meanwhile, Beagelman worked for the next two days with airlines and the Canadian embassy to secure his client’s safe exit from the country.

We might not all have the cash or the clout to hire the John McLane of travel agents, and most of us are unlikely, perhaps, to find ourselves involved in deadly international incidents on vacation. But the extreme admin support offered by Beagelman and company does illustrate one reason why travel agents as a profession have themselves manage to survive in the age of online booking, flight-comparison websites and infinite reviews, Instagram streams and travel blogs covering every conceivable corner of the planet.

“It’s the reassurance of knowing that somebody is looking after you, even when you’re sleeping,” says Claire Howard, Communications & Research Manager for the American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA), the professional body that certifies travel agents in the U.S. and advocates for personal-service travel experiences throughout the industry. According to Howard, the big reason you might still turn to an agent in 2019 is, “so you know you’re going to be okay. It’s like the one true time for you to feel like royalty, and you don’t have to worry about anything.”

The advantage of engaging a good travel advisor — the term officially preferred by those who do the job since ASTA underwent a subtle, acronym-preserving rebrand from ‘Agents’ to ‘Advisors’ last year — is that they’re “more detailed about the planning process.” So if your trip does start to go wrong — say your take-off has been horrendously delayed, you’re going to miss your connecting flight, and you’re at serious risk of sleeping at the next airport — “a travel advisor will foresee all these things while you’re on your plane; they’ll already have sent you an email letting you know that they’ve booked something for you. They’ll change your flight for you mid-air, or they’ll book your hotel so that you have some place to stay.”

This sort of sub-sub-subMission: Impossible version of the Beagelman protocols is a service that often escapes notice, since it only comes into play when things go wrong. But it did vividly come to the public’s attention back in 2010, when that Icelandic volcano with the impossible name erupted. With most of Europe’s airspace closing down over a very long week thanks to the billowing ash cloud, resulting in 19,000 flights a day being cancelled and an estimated 10 million tourists left stranded, the profession leapt into action. According to a former employee of an Irish travel agency, who has blogged about this under the name Nellie Bly, “some agents went above and beyond for not only their own, but other customers — working ridiculous hours, staying until they got seemingly endless problems resolved and showing genuine compassion for the people affected.”

It served to remind people, at least for a time, of the benefits of hand-held holidaymaking; she writes that “this one event played a huge part in a shift back to booking with an agent.”

Agent Down
Of course, the fact that it’s taken reminders on such an apocalyptic scale to nudge tourists back in the direction of travel agents tells its own story; there’s no doubt that over at least 20 years of accelerating digitization, the disruptions in the trade have been, well, volcanic. “Over the past decade, travel agents have become less and less necessary for most people, as the industry itself has made booking vacations incredibly easy,” says Matt Kepnes, author of How to Travel the World on $50 a Day, who has been roaming the world since 2006 and blogging about it as Nomadic Matt. “With cheap-flight websites, online package deals and the sharing economy, more and more people are embracing the DIY style of travel over using an agent.”

While Kepnes reckons they still have a place in the industry — “for anyone with a complicated itinerary, traveling in a group or who just doesn’t want to put in the time and effort to plan their own trip” — as a connoisseur of budget travel, he doesn’t use them himself. “While I’d likely save a lot of time using an agent, doing the planning myself is all part of the learning process. Moreover, given the type of travel I do, I don’t need a travel agent. It’s just me, some hostels and some flights. Nothing complicated that would really require one.”

As someone who provides cost-saving information and tips to the public essentially for free, Kepnes might be seen as one of the reasons many people who would have looked to agents for advice 20 years ago don’t bother with them any more. In his view, it’s not so much that the travel agent profession is struggling for survival, since “the biggest changes happened years ago, but rather that it’s one used by a smaller amount of people.”

It’s certainly true that its horizons have shrunk significantly. According to ASTA’s own figures, the sector was hitting its peak in the late 1990s, with the number of American travel-agency firms in 1997 standing at just under 23,000. Some 15 years later, by the end of 2013, that number had fallen to just 9,293. The number of people working in the business, meanwhile, was at its largest at the turn of the millennium, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports there were more than 124,000 employed as full-time travel agents in the U.S.; by 2014, this had dropped by 48 percent, bottoming out at around 64,000 jobs.

It’s a period, obviously, that includes two major events that hugely suppressed both vacation and business bookings, both in the U.S. and around the world: 9/11 in 2001, and the financial crisis of 2008. But when you map the overall decline against the rise of automated online agencies — the first major hotel-booking platform to appear was Travelweb.com in 1994; the first web-transacted airline ticket was bought a year later via a Palo Alto basement business; and Microsoft’s Expedia launched in 1996, which quickly came to dominate the market in the early 2000s — the direction of travel seems pretty clear.

Surprisingly, though, it wasn’t the sudden from-your-sofa convenience of booking engines that torpedoed the status of travel agents in the market, so much as a structural shift in how airline tickets got sold — and this transformation was well underway even before the internet dreadnoughts arrived. As Gary Leff, founder of the consumer airline website View from the Wing, explains, even for simple trips, people used to buy airline tickets as a matter of course “from brick and mortar travel stores — the traditional travel agent.” Back then, the air carriers would pay the agents healthy commissions for each ticket sold — which is why, as a consumer, you used to be able to walk into a travel agent’s office and use their services for free while thumbing through a dog-eared brochure. But airlines began withdrawing that lucrative income from 1995 onwards, beginning with a move by one major airlines to halve its commission rates, as a cost-saving measure.

Within the industry this was the moment things started to shake down for travel agents. Digital competition was, then, the catalyst and not the root cause of the further upheavals to come. “When airlines cut commissions, agencies started adding booking fees,” says Leff. “That pushed travelers to book direct.” And, of course, the likes of Expedia, then Travelocity, FareChase, Priceline and all the other variations on the theme mopped up. More than 20 years later, with the market share they now enjoy, the big metasearch businesses and online agencies “can work both with low margin per ticket, and have volume to negotiate better deals.”

New Horizons
As with lots of industries that have suffered extreme turbulence in the digital economy, though, the algorithms haven’t quite had it all their own way, and there are plenty of signs that agents have adapted in ways that go far beyond an advisory tweak to their job titles.

When the booking engines took over from personal service, “something was lost in the process,” says Leff. “Better travel agencies were good at helping customers choose the itinerary that was best for them. They might suggest avoiding a short connection in Chicago in winter time, for instance.” The robo-booking platforms, on the other hand, have tended to aggregate their customers along with the air fares. “Since there isn’t much to booking a simple round trip between D.C. and Chicago, they don’t have to invest a lot in customer service either.” And if you’ve ever tried to get customer service from one of the major booking websites, contends Leff, “you know they don’t invest well there.”

Such downsides to cutting the middle-human out of the loop might well be reflected in the fact that in recent years travel agents have, surprisingly, been bouncing back — to a certain extent, perhaps, and for certain types of traveler. The steep drop in traditional job numbers has been somewhat offset by the number of independent and part-time agents setting up shop. In citing the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ low point of 64,000, ASTA made sure to point out that, as far back as 2014, in addition “the market now includes 40,000-plus Independent Agents, mostly working from home, that did not exist in 2000.” ASTA itself touts a figure from the Census Bureau of just over 105,000 travel agents in work as of 2015, which, it says, “represents an 8 percent increase over five years.”

Claire Howard of ASTA puts down this mini-renaissance in personal service largely to two things. First is a growing appetite for bespoke trip-planning among consumers across the board — she cites market research that suggests that 78 percent of travelers who had used an agent within the last five years “agree that their travel advisor looks out for them,” and that even among supposedly offline-shy millennials, 56 percent feel the same. Supporting this idea, one independent survey of 2,000 British travel customers carried out at the start of 2019 found, “Almost half of millennials booked at least one vacation with a travel agent in the past 12 months.”

Driving this is an apparent desire to build vacations around the exciting and authentic, rather than the touristy box-ticking and beach-bumming of yore. “A lot of travelers nowadays want to feel immersed in where they’re going,” says Howard, as opposed to merely sightseeing, and will turn to travel advisors in the hope that their expertise will “give them more of a cultural experience.”

Gary Leff, who also runs his own specialist advisor service — Book Your Award, for people looking to capitalize on their frequent-flyer miles — agrees this is a big trend among wealthier traveler types: “High-end travel agents are doing quite well as people tend to increasingly prefer investing in experiences versus things.” Advisors, he says, are well placed because, “much more expensive trips have the margins and commissions that can fund a more bespoke approach. So if you’re booking a safari or a really tailored trip there are specialists who can advise.”

A second, related reason for the recruitment boom in agents is, oddly enough, the very fact that consumers are able to do most of the donkey work of booking themselves. As the mechanics of price-comparison and deal-brokering have become less central to the job, travel agents have instead doubled down on travel knowhow and destination expertise as marketable assets. Many of the new small-time advisors are older than you might expect, according to Howard — vacation veterans, often at retirement age, who are turning a lifelong passion for adventure into a handy income stream. “They can become a full-time advisor once they’re fully retired because it’s something fun that they like to do, because they love to travel.”

And, in allowing enthusiasts-turned-pros to dive in with minimal overheads, to work from home, and if they’re serious about it, gain their certification as an ASTA-approved advisor (for which they need to complete an intensive program of nine online professional training courses within a year), remote technology has started to look a lot more like the travel agents’ friend than their sworn enemy.

A neat illustration of this is a matchmaker service recently launched by ASTA, TravelSense.org, which, taking a cue from the online-dating world, is designed to hook customers up with the advisors ideally suited to their preferred destinations, budgets and travel styles. Howard sees this kind of tech-supported personalized service as pioneering a “big boost for ASTA and the entire industry,” a potential route back for habitual booking-engine customers who are missing “those detailed, hands-on customer-service experiences.”

Niche Work If You Can Get It
“As a consumer, I want to work with an agent who really knows an area, preferably someone who lives in the destination and who has access to a wide range of suppliers and contacts,” says travel and wine writer David Levart, who has run the blog Dave’s Travel Corner since 1996 and now combines it with his own wine-tours business covering the Napa Valley. “I want to feel very confident in their knowledge and expertise.”

Having visited and written about nearly all of Napa’s 1,100 or so wine producers himself, Levart sets the bar high for local knowledge. “I work with a number of agents who specialize in wine tourism,” he says. “Perhaps those who haven’t been able to pivot from a more general type of service for their clients may be struggling — since general travel, including airfare, accommodations, restaurants and trips, can be easily arranged online.” By contrast, “Those who work with a clientele looking for specific experiences are doing well — the type of client who perhaps doesn’t have the time to wade through the vast amounts of content online and instead would rather rely on an expert to set up all the logistics and details of a particular trip or experience.”

He sees this kind of targeted service offered by a well-versed advisor as still very relevant to specialized tour operators like himself, and something which will continue to find an ample supply of customers among the traveling public, however the industry evolves. “Trust and feeling good about relying on someone to set up all these details is an important part of this relationship.”

This fits in very well with at least one trend Howard has noticed steadily gaining ground within the travel-advisor biz. “Long-term planning is when you have the same advisor for many years,” she says, explaining that luxury clients especially are increasingly treating their travel agent as they might their personal chauffeur, insurance broker or gynecologist, and staying with them for decades at a time.

“Say I’m your advisor,” says Howard: “You’d fill out this sheet and tell me, ‘What’s on your bucket list for the next 10 years?’ And I will plan trips accordingly, to that list — and build upon it to make sure that we are accomplishing everything that you wanted to see and learn and who you wanted to meet and what you wanted to taste.” This kind of ultra-tailored, 24/7 service brings high-end leisure bookings close to the kind of lifeline support offered by Beagelman to his high-risk clients. “I’ll know exactly what you want and what you don’t want at your hotel,” says Howard, “what you like to eat; what needs to be on your pillow when you arrive at your hotel. Those sort of little details totally make the difference.”

Outside of the luxury sector, though, for the average person planning their precious vacation on a slender budget, are travel advisors eking their way back to becoming relevant, one booking at a time? Or is the wave they’re riding a temporary fad, one more retro fashion that will be submerged and forgotten as soon as the next iteration of TripAdvisor-style review sites or Airbnb-style sharing platforms hits? Leff believes, “We’ll get to a place where next-phase technology makes online booking better — not just a do-it-yourself experience, but real guidance via AI. A leader in this space is Google,” he points out, which has recently moved its tourism offering from its Trips app to a dedicated travel website.

However, he also thinks space will remain on the fringes of the mass market “for more labor-intensive, craft travel advice.” Levart agrees: “I see the industry continue to become more specialized, with agents focusing on specific regions and specific experiences.” From the budget traveler’s point of view, Kepnes is less optimistic: “I imagine that in the coming years the software for self-booking will only get better and better. I think it will certainly be a position automated out of existence in the future, for better or for worse.”

Howard thinks ASTA’s lobbying on behalf of travel advisors, and the glossy meta-concierge service offered by its Travel Sense platform, will protect her profession from that. In the short term, though, she would like to see many more under-40-year-olds joining the young-at-heart retirees as intrepid lone-ranger travel advisors — partly to meet the demands of all the millennials expressing interest in tailored travel advice: “It would be a little different in terms of identifying the trends of where they’re going and what they’re doing, if they actually had a millennial as their travel advisor.”

But is it a safe bet in terms of job security? If you were to answer that call and embark on a career as one today, where might you end up? It seems the answer, a bit like that unlucky passenger on the hypothetically delayed flight, is up in the air.