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It’s no secret that 2020 was one of the worst years to work in travel, with an estimated 100 million direct tourism jobs at risk worldwide, according to an August 2020 policy brief from the United Nations. But there’s one tourism job that has become more relevant than ever: the travel agent.
Before coronavirus, it seemed the travel agent was a dying profession. The internet made it easy to research your own destinations, compare costs, find availability and book. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2019 projected that employment of travel agents would decline by 26% from 2019 to 2029, a loss of 21,300 jobs nationwide.
And while it might be optimistic to believe the trend will completely reverse, signs indicate that the demise of the travel agent might not be as drastic as the government’s 2019 data projected. With people demanding refunds, needing help rescheduling or seeking guidance on travel restrictions, agents have proven their dominance over the travel booking websites that killed them.
“Travel advisors are like flight attendants,” says Beci Mahnken, founder and CEO of travel agency MEI-Travel. “When you have a smooth trip, we make you comfortable, … ensure you get to your destination safely. But our true value is on full display when something goes wrong.”
That rang true especially in 2020, when the realities of COVID-19 hit.
Human travel agents prove their worth
From April to September 2020, user satisfaction with internet travel services like Expedia and Tripadvisor plummeted 5.2% to an all-time low, according to the American Customer Satisfaction Index.
“Online travel agencies struggle when it comes to customer support such as live chat, help pages, or call centers — a situation that worsened during the pandemic,” according to the report. Users have long found canceling travel arrangements with online travel agencies to be cumbersome.
“Many travel suppliers had long hold times to cancel or rebook trips,” Mahnken says. “We were able to take that burden on for our clients as well as navigate the ever-changing policies and find the best-case scenario.”
And that was just the first few weeks of the pandemic.
“Weeks later we took on the task of following up on refunds and made sure future cruise and travel credits were correctly issued,” she says.
As many airlines and hotels relax their cancellation policies for travel booked directly with them, the same can’t be said for many online travel agencies.
For example, Booking.com says you’ll likely be entitled to a refund only if you specifically book a “flexible rate” and warns that even still, “Your cancellation request will be handled by the property.” Expedia says you can usually cancel reservations made through its site, but standard cancellation policies might apply (which likely isn’t helpful if you want all your money back).
“Pandemic or no pandemic, either book direct or with a travel agent. Should anything need to be canceled, you’re only dealing with the one business," says Sarah Dandashy, former hotel concierge and creator of Ask A Concierge. She warns that booking with a third-party online travel agency creates one more entity that you’ll have to involve.
Since travel agents typically have personal relationships with travel providers, they can often get you the best of both worlds: a curated trip that’s also easier to cancel.
What’s in store for 2021
Like most other tourism jobs, 2020 was brutal for travel agents, but as vaccines roll out and travel restrictions ease, travel agents say they already expect 2021 will be busy.
“Since news of the vaccine, we have seen an increase in inquiries and even bookings, primarily for fall 2021 and into 2022,” Mahnken says. “There is pent-up demand to get away from the same walls where we have all been quarantined.”
But it’s not just more bookings that Mahnken expects added to her workload.
“I also foresee tracking and communicating a lot more information like travel restrictions, requirements and possibly vaccine verification. It will also be more important to keep up on a particular resort or cruise ship’s safety protocols so clients can travel with peace of mind.”
Why booking with a travel agent might make sense (and not necessarily cost you more)
A big reason why 2020 was so tough on travel agents: They typically make money only if you actually travel. MEI-Travel, like many other travel agencies, provides services for free to customers. Their paychecks come from commission paid by the suppliers — and only at the time of travel.
“This has made it difficult as not many have been able to travel until recently, and many more are rebooking until later in 2021 and 2022,” Mahnken says.
Some travel agencies charge fees for individual services like research, bookings and changes.
If there’s no fee, then that could be a good enough reason for some to book with a travel agency. But even if you like DIY travel planning, it might make sense to work with an agent, and here’s why.
They can help with last-minute changes
You might need support for a variety of possible disruptions, say a snowstorm delaying flights, a new COVID-19 guideline at your destination, or an illness or injury to someone in your travel group.
“We have close relationships with the travel suppliers, who keep us in the loop of any changes at your destination so there aren’t any surprises,” Mahnken says. “Our most important role is as an advocate. If something does go awry, we are just a text or phone call away and can leap into action and resolve it.”
Agents are more familiar with travel restrictions
Mahnken says her primary work right now is helping clients sort through the myriad of travel restrictions and policy changes. Not sure if your destination requires a COVID-19 test upon arrival? Unclear whether your airline mandates masks for toddlers? Your travel agent likely knows and if not, they’ll do the work to find out.
They’ll tell you what to expect
If you’re headed to Walt Disney World with hopes of getting a warm hug from Olaf from “Frozen,” booking with a travel agent who specializes in Disney trips, like Mahnken, can set your expectations. In that case, she’d warn you that there are no Olaf hugs to be had, as all Disney character experiences are currently socially distanced — meaning characters only wave to you from terraces, parade floats or behind other barricades.
Travel agents may save you money
Because travel agents have relationships with travel companies, Mahnken says that they can get you deals that you wouldn’t necessarily find on a large booking site.
“Travel suppliers give us access to additional perks you may not find booking direct,” she says. “We also monitor your booking for better deals and proactively apply any additional savings or benefits that may come along.”
They can organize complex itineraries
Taking three separate flights to get to your overwater bungalow in the Maldives? Heading on a cruise with your grandparents, parents, 12 cousins and their parents? An agent can help get you back on track if one leg of your air travel is delayed, or can coordinate schedules of your 30 family members so you can spend Christmas in July together.
As travelers anticipate more extravagant trips than ever to compensate for a lost 2020, a travel agent may prove instrumental in organizing all of it.
“Travel feeds the soul,” Mahnken says. “It’s an important part of the human experience, and people have been saving money and vacation time over the past year for it.”
The bottom line
Travel agents demonstrated their value over the past year, especially when travelers experienced unexpected changes to their 2020 trips — whether it was a flight canceled by the airline or a personal decision to call off a vacation because of quarantine requirements. And as travel still looks uncertain for the foreseeable future, booking through a travel agent could save you headaches should your itinerary change.
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