Ask Aurelio Giordano why someone should use a travel agent these days, and his reply is reflexive: “Do you have a couple of minutes?” The Brooklyn-based travel agent founded his company, Ace World Travel, in 2012 and has seen his business grow exponentially in recent years.
These days it’s easy to assume that a vacation is a DIY undertaking. At least that’s what the countless websites that allow us to book a flight, make a hotel reservation, buy insurance, and explore area restaurants and sites would have us think. Not so fast. While you might see fewer travel agency storefronts than you did 20 years ago, it doesn’t mean that the industry has gone the way of Blockbuster Video. That’s because travel agents provide a valuable service that can feel rare in our digital era: personal guidance. And that’s hardly all. According to the American Society of Travel Advisors, the top three reasons people go to an expert are to save planning time, avoid mistakes, and improve the overall vacation experience. ASTA studies show that on average people can save 3.5 hours in planning and more than $300 per trip by working with a pro. We spoke to some veteran travel agents to get a full understanding of how they can help us travel better.
The Travel Agent Industry Is Growing
Grand Canyon? Been there. Boston’s Freedom Trail? Done that. And your parents did it, too. And your grandparents. Travel today ain't what it used to be. “Travelers these days are looking for different, exclusive experiences. They don’t want the kind of cookie-cutter trips they’d get through Expedia,” says Aurelio. “My agency has grown tremendously because people are looking for more specified and personalized itineraries." For plenty of people, time off is a rarity. It could take three years to save the time and money for a vacation, and they don't want just any trip, he says.
ASTA reports that the Census Bureau’s 2015 figures, the latest available, showed that U.S. travel agencies employ 105,085 people, an 8 percent increase over five years. It’s a growth that Paloma Villaverde de Rico, editor-in-chief of Recommend Magazine, a trade publication, attributes to the boom in younger travelers. “What I can tell you from writing about the travel agent industry for the last 15 years is that there is definitely a surge in interest among millennials and even Gen Z (the young 20-somethings) in this profession—and this in reference to an industry that everyone thought would go away due to the Internet,” she says.
Hand-Crafted, Personalized Vacations
“It all starts with a conversation,” says Aurelio (facebook.com/aceworldtravel/). “I think people miss the human connection. They wanna talk to someone, they’re tired of pressing ‘one,’ but we're conditioned to accept that as the norm. There’s a huge lack in customer service these days because everything’s so automated and accessible through the touch of screen.” That human connection is the travel agent’s stock-in-trade. The better Aurelio understands a client’s particular preferences and interests, the more exclusive and fine-tuned and authentic the itinerary will be. There’s also the fact that not every travel business sells their services or product online. Some tour operators, for instance, only work business-to-business, which means a travel agent can connect you to services that you wouldn’t find on the web.
According to Margie Jordan, vice president of the TRUE network, a division of the trade organization CCRC, a travel agent's job is best explained as a concierge service. “What I love about travel agents is the personally built relationships. The places I’m recommending are the best, say, hotel I’ve slept in. I’ve been there, I know staff, I’ve talked to them.”
The Immeasurable Value of Insider's Knowledge
“You wouldn’t go on a DIY architecture website to build your home, would you?” says Paloma. And so it goes with travel agents. An agent spends her career learning the tricks of the trade and building an arsenal of insider knowledge, then advises accordingly. She’ll know, for instance, that the best deals for cruises are available during wave season, so that’s the best time to make your purchase.
Or consider you’re in London and you want to see Paris. A website won’t necessarily suggest that you drop the idea of packing up your stuff and staying overnight. Aurelio will tell you to simply make it a day trip—it’s only a two-hour-ish train ride, after all.
Of course, that insider’s expertise extends far beyond transportation logistics. Giordano’s recommendations are based off years of networking, going to conferences and expos, visiting hotels, going on cruises, and so forth. His vast knowledge of places and people make him a valuable resource when someone has a specific need, like dietary restrictions or a disability. Group trips can also be easier to plan when you sit down with someone who’s seen the layout of the hotels and restaurants you’re considering.
And as the travel industry grows and becomes more specialized, an agent can tailor a trip to niche interests. “What good travel agents are doing is becoming experts in one specific type of segment," Paloma says. "For example, there are travel agents who specialize in family travel, and within that you can find travel advisors who sell to LGBT family clients, or family clients with special needs. There are other advisors who sell wellness vacations, while others dedicate themselves to booking cruises, and still others to destination weddings and honeymoons (there are many millennials, for example, that dedicate themselves to this for obvious reasons)."