When Peter Schwartz needs to book a trip, he doesn’t contact a travel agent. He calls a travel advisor.
So what is a travel advisor?
“She’s an expert at identifying great deals on planes and other means of travel plus hotels,” says Schwartz, a marketing consultant from Tucson, Ariz. “She understands how to piece together all the details of an international trip to make sure it is convenient and efficient.”
Like many other travelers, Schwartz is looking for more than someone who will do more than get him from point “A” to point “B.” He wants an expert with professional certifications such as Destination Specialist or Certified Travel Associate, which are offered by the Travel Institute.
“This sort of expert experience is very valuable for me since it saves me a lot of time and money — and frustration,” he adds.
Schwartz is part of a slow-moving trend that started in the 90s when airlines reduced travel agent commissions. Agents soon had competition from online travel agencies such as Expedia and Orbitz, and struggled to survive.
The American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA) explains
The number of full-time travel agents in the U.S. plummeted from a high of 124,000 in 2000 to roughly 74,000 in 2014, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Although the number bounced back to 81,700 today, the government projects a further 12 percent decline in the number of agents by 2026.
It was obvious to almost everyone in the travel industry that if travel agents continued to see themselves as middlemen between the buyer and seller, their days were numbered. So this summer, the American Society of Travel Agents quietly changed its name to the American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA). The new name “more accurately describes the value our members provide to consumers and is a distinct declaration of who we work for: the traveling public,” said Zane Kerby, ASTA’s president.
The message was clear: Stop calling us travel agents. Travel agents represent a dying business that no longer serves customers. Travel advisors, which provide a professional service, are the future.
But in a do-it-yourself world dominated by online travel agencies and where artificial intelligence is blurring the distinction between human agents and computers, is that message being received? The answer is complicated. Some customers and former agents are sold on the idea. But barriers, both external and internal, remain. For now, there are ways to tell if you’re working with a real advisor. However, the economics of the business will have to change if the entire industry wants to be recognized as professionals.
Travelers are lukewarm to name change
For travelers like Schwartz, ASTA’s message has gotten through loud and clear. As a busy marketing consultant, he doesn’t have time to make his own travel arrangements.
What’s more, his travel advisor, Donna Wolfe, offers concierge services that old travel agents never used to — anything from dinner reservations to handling travel documents like passports. She’s a certified expert in Mexico, Hawaii, Thailand, Fiji, Grand Cayman, and Alberta, Canada. Wolfe, who works for an agency called Plaza Travel, also belongs to the Signature Travel Network, a consortium of agencies.
Interestingly, travel agency networks such as Signature, Travel Leaders and Virtuoso, have helped travel advisors thrive during a time of cutthroat competition by consolidating their buying power. Those same networks are now helping agents make a transition to becoming advisors. So is ASTA, with its new Verified Travel Advisor program, which trains and certifies agents.
But other travelers are dubious of ASTA’s rebranding.
“The idea of using a travel agent in the traditional sense seems almost comical,” says Cameron Seagle, an engineer from Wilmington, N.C., who co-writes a travel blog called The World Pursuit. “This is the growing sense we get from a lot of our fellow travelers and even our parents’ generation. I think the internet, booking platforms, the sharing economy, and even travel blogs have changed the way we plan travel.”
Seagle says he’s open to using an agent, as long as that person is a subject matter expert — someone highly specialized and trained. If the expertise is easily found online or by asking friends, he’d rather just book it himself.
Internal divisions threaten shift from agents to travel advisors
Adding to the problem is the fact that travel advisors are still debating their role in the industry. I was pulled into this discussion when I had an opportunity to address ASTA’s annual convention last year. In my speech, I noted that agents who advocate for their clients, rather than just looking for a commission check, represented the future of the industry.
The speech drew a mixed reaction. While some members supported their agents-are-advisors role, many were deeply offended that I called out the traditional agents and gave examples of some of their anti-consumer behavior from the extensive files of my nonprofit consumer advocacy organization.
At least one member was so upset that she threatened to resign her ASTA membership unless the organization promised never to let me speak again. Talk about shooting the messenger.
Still, the experience was helpful. Seeing this anger up close made me understand that there’s a significant part of the travel agency community that wants to turn the clock back to 1990, to the days when they could earn a comfortable living with a phone call and a few keystrokes. These agents also view any criticism — even constructive criticism — as a hostile act.
Unfortunately, these agents are still in our midst, some pretending to be travel advisors when they just want to sell you a trip with the highest commission. It could take a generation or more before they disappear. So in a sense, making a transition from agents to advisors is as much an internal problem as it is an external one.
How can you tell if your agent is a travel advisor
How can you tell if you’re dealing with a travel advisor? Here are a few signs:
They do more than book travel
Travel agents may ticket air, book a hotel, and set up transfers only. “For advisors, that is simply the framework,” Kristin Chambers, a luxury travel advisor with DA Luxury Travel, a Virtuoso agency. “Advisors network and research to build their black book of local connections they spend years building that is beyond hotel and air connections.”
An advisor develops expertise in one or more areas of travel. “It’s someone who offers specialization and who can offer more in-depth knowledge about a destination,” says Mina Agnos, president of Travelive, a luxury travel agency. “This goes into where to stay and why you should stay there, which tours to take based on your interests, pairing you with the right guides, even booking your dining and spa reservations.”
Travel advisors create customized itineraries and trips — not boilerplate, one-size-fits-all vacations. “We develop a full client profile to know what the interests and preferences are, in order to customize an itinerary to suit,” says Vivian Temba, the sales director for Amani Afrika, an agency that specializes in safaris. “We’d also make sure to take into account any special requests, like providing gluten-free meals, even for our mountain trekking excursions.”
They offer concierge services
Increasingly, travel advisors offer concierge-type services that you might get from a five-star hotel. “The job of travel advisers may or may not carry over to offering assistance and service while you travel,” says Jacquie Whitt, a travel advisor with Adios Adventure Travel, which specializes in South America. That could mean anything from dinner reservations to theater tickets to really, or whatever else you might need on the road.
They charge a consulting fee
Clients working with a reputable advisor should expect to pay ticket issue fees on air tickets, plan-to-go fees, and itinerary planning fees, says Mollie Fitzgerald, who runs Frontiers International Travel, a travel agency. “Some companies even levy fees for related services like booking dinner reservations, theater tickets, and hair appointments. While commission income is still a meaningful part of our business, this shift to a fee-based industry has definitely helped to professionalize the way in which advisors are viewed, and most clients understand this and know that you often get what you pay for.”
Are agents now travel advisors?
So should you start calling your travel agent a travel advisor now? Not so fast, say observers.
“Realistically, the new moniker is more appropriate under most — but not all — modern travel booking circumstances,” says Shylar Bredewold, founder of Odyssean Travel, an online travel agency. “Possibly a dash of branding as marketing, sure.”
That’s because most agents already do some, but maybe not all, of the things an advisor does. But the bigger question — are they actual travel advisors? — may be unanswerable for now.
Truth is, the economics of being a travel advisor are complicated. Most advisors still rely on two income streams: fees charged to clients and commissions paid by suppliers. And while advisors say they represent you, the customer, they can’t also ignore the needs of those who pay them. And for better or worse, that’s still the cruise lines, tour operators and hotels, which offer commissions of 10 to 14 percent to the advisors.
Until the economics of travel shifts, advisors will remain, in a very real sense, agents for the suppliers who are paying them.
But changing their names to travel advisors is a necessary first step. It may be a while before they are recognized as full-fledged professionals like financial advisors, but they are on the right path.