Online Booking Sites Lose Ground to Traditional Travel Agents

Due to a growing frustration with online booking sites and a need to interact with actual humans when planning their vacations, travelers are returning from the web to the traditional travel agents. A new study by Forrester Research showed that in the first three months of 2010, 28% of leisure travelers in the U.S. who booked their trips online said they’d be interested switching to a good traditional travel agent, a 23% increase from 2008.

Another report by the same research company found that the number of leisure travelers who actually enjoyed using the Web to plan and book their vacations dropped from 53% in 2007 to 46% last year. The reasons for this drops are the growing frustration of travelers with the online booking sites which fail to simplify the increasingly complicated travel process or to meet their specific needs.

“We believe it’s a function of consumers’ increasing desire to get the best value as well as the increasing amount of complexity associated with planning and booking a trip,” says Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst for Forrester Research. “Planning and booking a vacation should be fun. Instead, most travel websites deliver a very clinical experience and a very intimidating experience, and one that is about as much fun as walking through quicksand. It’s just not where it should be.”

The wave of dissatisfaction with web services certainly provides a great opportunity for traditional travel agents. After seeing their numbers drop tremendously in the past decade, they are now experiencing a growing demand for their services.

“Any time you have confusion in a marketplace or in a channel, it bodes well for those who have the potential to relieve you of that confusion,” says Harteveldt, “and a travel agent can obviously provide advice and counsel.”

Why would a traveler prefer a traditional travel agent? There are many reasons:

  • the special rates, upgrades and perks they often provide their clients with
  • the help they provide with figuring out complicated rates and restrictions
  • the fact they can easily act when a trip goes wrong

“A lot of people are finding that travel has become more complicated than ever and that they need … the assistance of professionals that are going to understand,” says Paul Ruden, senior vice president for legal and industry affairs for the American Society of Travel Agents.

While their business is decreasing, there is no way to say travel websites aren’t doing well. Online booking of leisure travel in the U.S. is expected to report a $80 billion growth in 2010, and $86.6 billion in 2011 to reach  $110.7 billion by 2014. As Forrester noticed, a lot more travel services are becoming available online, from tours to summer rentals, retreats and travel workshops.

The best solution for the travelers? Possibly a mix of traditional agents and online services, as lines between online and offline agencies are already rather blurred according to Andrew Weinstein, spokesman for the Interactive Travel Services Association, which represents online companies such as Orbitz and Expedia.

“I think what you’re seeing is a convergence in many ways between online and offline worlds, as you are in other industries,” says Weinstein, who notes that most travel websites have around-the-clock customer service to assist those who have problems or questions. “Many brick-and-mortar travel agents use online travel sites to price their itineraries, and most online sites offer full-service human support. This is really an industry where everybody wins when more people travel, and we think both online and offline travel sites offer valuable services.”

Dan Toporek, a spokesman for Travelocity, says the Forrester research indicating some frustration with travel sites is probably “less about a shift away from online travel sites and more about the need to offer a personal touch online.” Travelocity, he says, is offering more personalized options and suggestions tailored to choices a consumer has made in the past. “There will be a lot more to come in this area.”





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