IT inferiority complex must end

It’s time to talk about interactive travel’s inferiority complex.

For years, critics have claimed there’s no electronic substitute for a real, honest-to-goodness, ASTA-accredited travel agent. Hardly a soul has stood up to debunk that myth.

I remember reading the first such agent-canonizing article in one of the advertising-controlled travel trades. (Unofficial motto: “Our cover is for sale, and so is everything inside.”) It slammed Web-based booking tools for their inefficiency and implied that the Internet was nothing more than a fleeting fad.

The rest of the media, apparently temporarily incapable of independent though, followed in lockstep. Even a close friend of mine recently fell into line in his business travel column, mocking Delta’s new Web site as too slow.

Too bad. Comparing an early Web-based application to a human travel agent isn’t exactly fair, and it only serves to deepen our industry’s sense of inferiority. But that doesn’t mean interactive travel should just roll over and play dead.

Personally, I’ve have had enough of it.

Here’s what a typical booking tool-bashing article says, and here’s how I’d answer every fatuous point made by it:

1. “A human agent knows the customer. A machine doesn’t.”

Well, it all depends what your definition of “know” is. If you’re referring to the customer’s personal life, the point is well taken: a Web-based tool won’t ask you how the kids are, won’t feign interest in your favorite football team.

But it will be there 24 hours a day, which is something you won’t get from a human agent. You also won’t get the regular complaints that I endure from my travel agent-about low pay, long hours, the fact that her manager gets to go on all the fam trips.

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Finally, the more advanced booking tools already “remember” the important stuff, like seating preferences or your favored car rental company. Things that really matter.

2. “An agent can go the extra mile. A machine is dumb.”

Again, define “extra mile.” Sure, Web-based booking tools don’t send out birthday presents or call to find out if it was a boy or a girl. A human agent can phone a supplier that may not participate in a CRS, which I’ll concede is one advantage of the human touch.

Look at the Internet in context and the advantages become obvious. On the Web, you can “switch” agents as easily as typing “http://”

The Web empowers users to make their own decisions, to become their own agents. For consumers who can’t handle that responsibility, there will always be human interfaces to soothe their techno-phobia. The rest of us can move into the next century.

3. “My travel agent is faster.”

That’s hitting below the belt. True, the bandwidth problem is very real. But equally true is that it’s quickly becoming a non-issue as speedier modems and fiber connections are introduced.

A closely related criticism is that a “real” agent can book a flight or a hotel more efficiently – a point that I must partially concede to the opposition. Most carbon-based agents are faster as a general rule. Where does the blame for this lie? Before holding the machine responsible, consider the user, with a lifetime of experience using a phone but only a few years at best on the Net.

I’m tired of reporters taking shots at interactive travel’s flagship services, not because the criticism is entirely unwarranted, but because they fail to present our emerging business in the proper context. Instead of logging on to America Online, spending a few meaningless minutes surfing, and then drawing sweeping conclusions from their first-time experiences, reporters should try to take a more balanced approach.

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The truth is, interactive travel is still a toddler. During this phase in their development, travel agents were still writing tickets by hand, and they were consulting printed schedules and using phones to find the lowest fares. How much further have the online booking mechanisms come in that time?

Even today, a human travel agent can’t approach the flexibility of the Internet at the fingertips of an accomplished user. Maybe that’s the real reason for all the unfair criticism of the Internet. If your circulation department were charting the inevitable decimation of your readership at the hand of a faceless computer, wouldn’t you do everything in your power to destroy the computer?

Pay attention to what they’re saying about us. The closer you examine it, the more their words sound like a final act of desperation rather than a legitimate act of public service.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at Read more of Christopher's articles here.

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