Travel agents reinventing their industry

Internet-based airline ticketing forcing agents to focus on their expertise, personal service

LaDonna Smith, owner of Whatcom Travel, said she has had to switch her focus from airline reservations to more of a one-stop tour shop, where she can focus on her years of experiences on trips and personal service in order to keep clients.

Heidi Schiller
   LaDonna Smith can tell whether you’re more of a cruise to Cancun or a Disney extravaganza type. She can tell if you’d be happier in an expensive suite or a standard room, a motor-home road trip or a train tour through the mountains. She’ll tell you to save your money and camp if that’s what you feel comfortable with, losing a commission in the process.
   Online travel services, such as Expedia and Travelocity, won’t.
   Smith, a travel consultant and manager for Whatcom Travel Service, is banking on her canny ability to read customers’ personalities and tailor their vacations accordingly as a way to survive the onslaught of online travel planning available at most people’s fingertips now.
   She’s honed her expertise since 1968.
   “I tell people: We’re here. We are faces and voices,” Smith said.
   The 2000 U.S. West Dex phone directory for Bellingham listed 22 travel agents or agencies in Bellingham. This year, the directory lists only eight, making Smith’s assertion of being “here” all the more stoic in an industry that has had to rapidly adjust to online travel-service growth and post 9/11 airline changes.
   Smith attributes her agency’s survival to her customers’ appreciation for human-to-human contact, its reputation for assembling enjoyable, low-priced vacations on par with — if not cheaper than — online versions of the same trips, and to the appeal and efficiency of having someone else do all the planning legwork.
   In an increasingly online and outsourced world, the perseverance of local travel agencies underscores a larger trend in the service industry — the struggle to survive against the simple option of point, click, and buy from the isolated comfort of a home computer.

A fork in the travel industry’s road
   Whatcom Travel Service — opened in 1958 by Smith’s father-in-law — retains a nostalgic travel-agency vibe at its Holly Street location. Maps and Disney posters drape the front window display. Inside, the coffee-colored walls are lined with more Disney posters — Mickey Mouse grinning at a young girl, a family whizzing down a Disney slide — as well as posters of a Bavarian palace, the Golden Gate Bridge shrouded in clouds and a pastel-colored Aloha Cruise ship. At the front of the long office, a colossal sky-blue Colorprint map of the world dwarfs the others.
   On a busy Monday, Smith sits talking on the phone, her manicured nails drumming on her desktop and then pushing her short, gray hair away from her glasses.
   Before 9/11, she said, airlines gave travel agents commissions for purchasing tickets for customers. After 9/11, the airline industry took a financial nosedive and those commissions quickly fell — from approximately 10 percent of the ticket price to five percent and eventually to nothing.
   The rapid decrease in Bellingham travel agents in the last five years is directly related to the airlines’ cutting of commissions, in addition to the rise of online travel giants, Smith said.
   Now, travel agents can only make commissions from cruises, tours, hotels and car-rental companies, although most still arrange air travel for an added fee.
   Frank Zurline, president of Bellingham Travel and Cruise on Chestnut Street, also emphasized online travel services and airline commission cuts in regard to the decrease in travel agencies.
   “Our society is getting used to doing a lot of things without a person, everything is so automated now,” Zurline said.
   Bellingham Travel and Cruise grossed $8.7 million in sales in 2005, down from averaging $10 million to $11 million before the prevalence of online services and the airlines’ cut in commissions.
   Zurline said he understands why people go online to simply buy a single-destination plane ticket without any hotel reservations, but when it comes to extensive or complicated travel plans, using a travel agent is invaluable. He mentioned arranging travel for a customer who needed airfare and accommodations for travel to and from Bellingham, Seattle, Oakland, Amsterdam and Houston in the same trip.
   Group travel is also much easier to book through a travel agent, he said.
   Smith agrees that many people don’t have the time or the motivation to arrange all their travel plans, and that’s good for travel agents.
   “Some people just don’t want to do it all themselves,” she said. “And then some people spend six hours doing it (online).”
   This seems excessive when arranging travel for Smith’s customers usually only takes her a half-hour, making the process faster and more efficient for the customer. Smith doesn’t charge a fee unless the client is only purchasing an airline ticket, instead of a full package with airline tickets, tour bookings and hotel reservations or a cruise. For only an airline ticket, she charges $25 to $45 for booking the flight, depending on the cost of the ticket.
   Another reason people use travel agents over online services is because they still feel uncomfortable posting credit card information online, said Julie Akre, manager of The Travel Gallery on King Street. She said privacy concerns keep a lot of her clients coming back to her instead of going online.

Taking the human route
   Zurline’s philosophy is akin to Smith’s regarding travel agents’ human-element edge over online services.
   Zurline had to reduce the number of his employees from 20 to 15 in recent years, and also had to cut many employees’ hours from 40 to 30-hour weeks as a response to slower business. But even so, Zurline said his employees — many of whom have worked at the agency for 10 to 15 years — have in-depth travel experience that helps them navigate travel arrangements for their customers. In a recent company newsletter, Zurline lists locales his agents have recently vacationed to, from New York and the Mexican Riviera to Italy, the Panama Canal and Eastern Europe.
   Because of their experience, agents can advise, counsel, suggest and recommend travel intricacies that online services cannot, he said.
   Zurline’s agency has survived because of this employee advantage, he said, and also because he’s increased marketing and advertising and started sending out newsletters.
   While Smith said she has seen some decline in business in the last six years, she hasn’t had to lay off either of her two employees.
   The Travel Gallery, like Whatcom Travel Service and Bellingham Travel and Cruise, has been a family-owned and operated business for 30 years and customers are loyal, Akre said. They come back to her because they trust her and tell their friends and family about it, and this is how agencies survive.
   Smith agreed. Customers choose Whatcom Travel Service over online options because they trust her over a computer, she said.
   “Those pictures can be so deceiving,” Smith said of online agencies’ hotel photos. Smith will advise her customers of hotels’ and cruises’ actual ambiance and quality level, or simply how a certain customer will take to a certain place, she said.
   “We want to make a sale, but we’re not so greedy that we’ll send someone somewhere they don’t like,” she said.
   Especially when most of her customers routinely come back to her to book their next vacation, as well as their children and grandchildren when they start traveling.
   “It’s like being a counselor or a bartender or a hairdresser,” Smith said of her repeat customers and the generations that follow, inviting her to weddings and birthday parties along the way.
   They often send her postcards or souvenirs from their vacations, such as the customer who recently sent her chocolates from Switzerland.
   And while the customer may have arranged a similar vacation through Expedia or Travelocity, she wouldn’t have had anyone to send the chocolates to, or share her experiences with when she returned.
   Doug Starcher, a Bellingham property manager, arranged travel online for a few vacations, but was never able to get a better price, or better service, than through Whatcom Travel Service.
   “I’ve been a client for 30 years, and my mom and dad were clients. We’ve had a long business and personal relationship (with Whatcom Travel Service),” he said.
   When Starcher has problems at ticket or check-in counters at the airport, he knows he can call Smith for help, but wouldn’t know how to call an online service.
   He continues to use Whatcom Travel Service for his two-to-three trips a year because he said he can always get a better price there than he can online, and has done the comparisons to know for sure. But most important to Starcher is the human connection.
   For example, making travel arrangements for Starcher’s mother, who was in a wheelchair and used an oxygen tank while she was alive, was difficult, but Smith and the other Whatcom Travel Service agents made those arrangements possible.
   “To me, it’s very important to have a human because sometimes things do go wrong,” he said. “Having someone there to help is important.”

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