The Roanoke Times

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Travel agencies take business back from Internet

Some travelers prefer talking to a real person to booking vacations online.

Martin Travel agent Barb Leech (left) helps Jerry and Kim Gray book a cruise to Hawaii. Travel agents can help when travelers run into problems.

Photos by Sam Dean | The Roanoke Times

Martin Travel agent Barb Leech (left) helps Jerry and Kim Gray book a cruise to Hawaii. Travel agents can help when travelers run into problems.

Mel Ludovici, owner of Martin Travel

Mel Ludovici, owner of Martin Travel

Consumers who click Web links for travel services aren't entirely happy with the results, triggering a small but noticeable uptick in business at bricks-and-mortar travel agencies.

"Some clients have returned to us because they have used the Internet and they did not see the value of it," said Ginny Savage, president of World Travel Service Inc.

The rationale isn't that sites such as Expedia.com don't function smoothly or provide good deals. Rather, since online travel agencies became popular more than five years ago, some consumers have become dissatisfied with the sometimes skimpy service after the sale -- such as troubleshooting common hassles travelers face when luggage is lost or flights are canceled. Sometimes, the airlines are no more helpful than the Web sites.

However, "if you have a real, live travel agent to help you, somebody can act as your advocate," said Mel Ludovici, owner of Martin Travel in Roanoke.

Ludovici has heard reports of online travel agencies charging a fee for a ticket holder to speak live to a customer service agent. He said once a ticket or vacation package is sold by his firm, the firm sticks with the traveler through the life of the trip, meaning until the traveler and the luggage have been to the destination and back.

Savage agreed. The stranded traveler thinking, "Just get me on the next flight" would do better phoning his or her travel agent rather than waiting in line at an airport ticket counter or in a Web site's phone queue, she said. She conceded that her travel agency isn't open at night or on weekends anymore.

Gautam Patel, owner of Alliance Travel in Roanoke, which specializes in international flights, said Web sites drew fire for charging to make minor reservation changes, such as moving travel one day later. Alliance customers can change arrangements at no charge on the same day the reservation is made and if the airline doesn't charge Alliance, he said.

"This is a service industry," Patel said, but customers are "tired of these Web sites."

The New York Times, in a recent report on the trend, said bricks-and-mortar travel agencies booked about 75 percent of airline tickets until the mid-1990s. But the current popularity of buying online is clear. The Times reported only half of the nearly 141 million American adults who use the Internet and travel at least yearly will purchase their tickets online in 2007, citing data provided by Forrester Research.

But for some, looking online for deals takes too much time and the personal attention of a travel agent is too important when the option is to click and contact a call center if there are problems, the Times said. So the migration back to travel agents has begun during the past year or so, the newspaper reported.

Consumers looking for a traditional travel agency will find far fewer are in business today. Savage said there are five or six in the Roanoke Valley, and she knows of a like number that have disappeared because of closure, retirement or merger and acquisition deals.