|By Richard N. Velotta, Las Vegas
SunMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
May 21, 2012--The Internet has become a game-changer for the travel industry. But it was also a job-killer.
As the public became more familiar with researching travel options and booking plane tickets and hotel rooms online, people became their own travel agents.
Thousands of travel agency professionals lost their jobs, and small mom-and-pop agencies either were absorbed by giant travel companies or disappeared.
But today, small, home-based travel agencies have rebounded. Last week, more than 1,500 of the estimated 8,000 agents nationwide were in Las Vegas for the Home-Based Travel Agent Forum, attending seminars and panel discussions to better themselves as travel professionals.
"It's a $100 billion industry today," said Mark Murphy, president and CEO of Travalliance and a travel industry writer. "I don't think people realize that 75 percent of cruises and tours and 60 percent of international travel are booked by travel agents who work from their homes."
Melody Fee, vice president of the Outside Sales Support Network, which presents the travel agent forum -- it debuted at the Venetian last year and is booked at the resort annually through 2016 -- said that although some agents have struggled in the Internet era, many of those who have adapted are making six-figure salaries.
Murphy said the biggest challenge facing today's home-based travel agents is marketing themselves. Most have thin advertising budgets and have a hard time telling potential customers about the services they offer.
Murphy moderated a panel on techniques agents can use to encourage repeat business. Panelist Martha Powell, a custom groups and fundraising specialist, suggested building a bon voyage swag bag ("swag," defined by her, is "Stuff Worthy of Agent Gifting.") It's inexpensive, she said, and it's the thought behind the gift that counts.
Lauren Liebert of Ticket to Travel gives customers gift baskets themed for the trip. She showed slides of baskets filled with Disney princess items for Disneyland trips, an "Under the Tuscan Sun"-themed basket for a trip to Italy and a basket that included a "Lion King" DVD to commemorate an African safari.
Scott Koepf, vice president of sales for Avoya Travel, is a big fan of "Welcome Home" gifts. Send a rose or a pizza. "Who wants to cook on the first day back from a vacation?" he asked. (Someone in the crowd said she gives her clients lottery tickets. "If they win, I know they're going to spend it on a trip, hopefully booked by me.")
With all the Internet search engines available and information at your fingertips, why go to a travel agent at all?
Murphy said there's no substitute for information from someone who knows the landscape. Knowledgeable agents are likely to know about insider deals -- and land mines.
Murphy used his own trip to Las Vegas as an example.
"You may not find all the details of things like resort fees until the day you show up," he said. "I booked at the Mandarin Oriental, and I didn't know the amount of the resort fee, although I knew it probably was coming because I come here about once a month on business.
"The amount didn't throw me because, after all, I'm already paying a lot to stay at that hotel," he said. "But it just ticked me off that I was getting hit with a $25 fee. I think most travelers want the entire cost consolidated in one bill. No one likes to get nickeled and dimed. I think that's why travelers get so angry about some of the airline fees they get hit with.
"A good travel agent would know about this and warn the customer in advance, but most of the time, you're not going to see that kind of information on a website," he said.
Fee said another strategy some at-home travel agents are taking is to become specialized. Some know all there is to know about cruises, adventure tours or Holy Land expeditions.
At the conference's trade show, Las Vegas had a major presence, with local resorts lining an entire row of booths. The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority is encouraging travel agents to book the city, offering $10,000 in incentives to the agent who books the most travel to the city through July 31.
Not bad in an industry most thought had died off long ago.
(c)2012 the Las Vegas Sun (Las Vegas, Nev.)
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