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A Throwback to the Past - the Traditional Travel Agent Making a Comeback

By Tom Belden, The Philadelphia InquirerMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Jul. 10, 2007 - Mark Naples, a Center City media consultant, was at his wit's end this spring trying to arrange a unique honeymoon in South Africa. As someone who travels 200,000 miles a year on business, Naples thought he knew how to efficiently book trips the modern way, on a computer.

"I bet I spent 15 or 20 hours on it," Naples said Monday as he was leaving on his trip. "One day I did nothing else. It was just getting me down. I was doing research online and it all added up to a Tower of Babel."

To save his sanity, Naples took a friend's advice and visited what seems like a throwback to the past: Premier Tours, a Philadelphia travel agency with a Walnut Street office that specializes in customized trips to Africa. There, a human being took charge of the arrangements.

Like Naples, millions of vacationers and business travelers have discovered why traditional travel agents still sell half of all airline tickets. They make almost 50 percent of hotel and car-rental reservations and book more than 80 percent of cruises and tour packages.

The agents who have survived more than a decade of upheaval in their industry provide good service, knowledge about travel and destinations, and help when things go wrong, industry experts say.

And agents often can find lower fares and prices for other services than can individuals who do all their own research and booking on the Internet, both industry experts and agents say.

"The good travel agents that have knowledge are like jewels," said Joe Brancatelli, who runs www.joesentme.com, a paid Web site for business travelers. "I use an agent, not to fly from New York to L.A., but when I want to go to Europe and want to sit in business class, I call him. He always beats the Web."

Use of the Internet to perform research and book travel is still growing for the major online services -- including Expedia, Orbitz, Priceline and Travelocity -- and other less-well-known sites, industry analysts say.

Henry Harteveldt, an analyst with Forrester Research Inc., estimated that half of the 141 million adults who used a computer and took at least one trip a year would buy travel online this year, an increase of more than 20 percent since 2005. The percentage of airline tickets sold by traditional agencies has declined from 70 percent six years ago to 50 percent, he said.

But what many experienced travelers say they have found is that they need to use both technology and a helpful voice on the phone to get the most for their money.

"They find that the information online may not be accurate . . . and it doesn't come with a relationship," said Robert Joselyn, a Phoenix consultant who has advised hundreds of travel agencies since the industry began going through dramatic changes in the mid-1990s.

That was when airlines began reducing and then eliminating the commissions -- usually 10 percent -- they had paid agents for each ticket sold. The agency business then was populated with thousands of one-office firms with two or three employees, selling less than $1 million a year in tickets and travel packages. Most have since gone out of business.

Now, the agencies that are prospering fall into three broad categories. The largest are business-travel specialists that sell at least $50 million a year in tickets and keep tabs on client companies' costs. Second are small agencies, with as little as a few million dollars in annual revenue, specializing in cruises, tour packages or a specific country or region of the world. The third are midsize firms that operate primarily in one metropolitan area, selling $10 million to $50 million a year in services to a mix of vacationers and small businesses.

Travel agents who specialize in vacations or work mostly with individual clients usually charge service fees of $20 to $40 to issue an airline ticket, but nothing to book cruises and tours on which they still make commissions.

Some specialists, such as Premier Tours, do not charge service fees, primarily because they still collect commissions from travel vendors such as hotels and tour companies.

Lisa Malik, Mark Naples' agent, said Premier could arrange customized trips to see wildlife, ride a luxury train or visit South African wineries, starting at about $3,000 a person, not including airfare. All Premier agents have visited the places in Africa, including luxurious lodges in game parks, where they send clients, she said.

"You have to specialize to thrive," said Malik, a native of Ireland who has been an agent for 10 years. "We have great contacts in Africa, and we tie up all the loose ends. When you call, you're not a 12-digit reference number in a call center in India."

And, because Premier gives South African Airways so much business, the agency can offer lower fares than public Web sites, she said.

Corporate agencies typically charge from $10 to $100 for each transaction, depending on the complexity, and also provide clients with detailed reports on their costs. In many cases, a company's employees book their trips online, with the agency electronically monitoring and approving each step in the process.

Topaz International Ltd., a Portland, Ore., firm that audits airline-ticket costs for companies, has found for the last six years that its clients pay less for the average ticket bought through a corporate agency, compared with fares available to anyone for the same trip on Expedia, Orbitz or Travelocity.

Savings have dwindled over the years, but are still significant. In its 2006 study, the travel-agency fare averaged $508, compared with $583 on the Internet, Topaz president Bradley Seitz said.

In this region, Uniglobe Wings Travel in Blue Bell is a good example of an agency with a mix of business and leisure clients that learned how to survive without commissions. Before owner Kate Murphy bought the business 21 years ago, it sold less than $2 million a year in airline tickets, compared with about $25 million now, she said. The bricks-and-mortar business has 29 employees and three branch offices, including four agents scattered around the country who work from their homes.

Murphy said the growth was accomplished largely with good management and by investing in the latest technology needed to answer phone calls quickly and to find the lowest airfares by having access to nonpublic Web sites designed just for agents. Good service, including having agents available day and night to solve problems when a client's travel goes awry, is also vital, she said.

"I tell my agents, 'Don't tell them you're busy, and don't let it show in your voice,' " she said. And while many clients are savvy travelers accustomed to using the Web to do research, "they want someone to validate their choices, and a neck to wring if things go wrong."

Contact staff writer Tom Belden at 215-854-2454 or tbelden@phillynews.com.

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To see more of The Philadelphia Inquirer, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.philly.com.

Copyright (c) 2007, The Philadelphia Inquirer

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