Work/Life: Offline Is the New Online

"Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated."  — Mark Twain


A century ago in 'technologist years' (about seven or 10 for the rest of us), many prognosticators foretold the elimination of the live travel agent, who, in the course of all good things, would be replaced by robots, by sophisticated algorithms, and by something called The Information Superhighway. Well, much like the vaunted Paperless Office and futuristic Hoverboard, this life-enriching, job-threatening technology still hasn't — and may never— happen.

Frankly, I couldn't be happier — I mean, about the live travel agent part. I'm clearly and justifiably bummed that Mattel never came through with the Hoverboard, though. (Isn't everyone?)

See, live travel agents deliver service that online travel agents (OTAs) have never been able to replicate much less replace, despite endless claims to the contrary. Of course, they'll offer platitudes like "there's no substitute for human interaction," or whatever. But the fact is, websites that feature travel bookings don't deliver on the most basic expectation of a travel buyer: offering the best options based on price, schedule, and preferred vendor.

As travel technology leaders have observed, when it comes to disappointing travelers, software is rarely the limiting factor. The technology powering Expedia, Orbitz, et al, is pretty advanced e-commerce stuff. However, what's driving them is a strategy that invests in sophisticated margin logic and multi-level algorithms to get you to see, click, and buy what they want you to.

But this is where the rubber meets the road, literally — when the next volcano explodes and your shoes stay glued to the ground, stuck in whatever far-flung limbo you happen to be, no computer is gonna proactively re-book you or find you a hotel so you can avoid curling up indefinitely on the terminal carpet hoping to find a way to get home. Except for the odd HAL 9000 in the movies, computers just don't give a fig.

That’s where John or Joyce Travel Agent come in … they are your travel professionals with  twenty-some years of travel booking experience seated behind the desk at your Friendly Local Travel Agency, headset at the ready. They have been dealt this deck before and know how to play these cards. You can stop sweating. Heck, here are people — live bodies! — who can actually find on their map the particular hole where you are marooned, which cancelled flight was yours, and what are your best hotel and trip options now.

Sure, a simple domestic roundtrip and a couple of hotel nights are how you might leverage solid online travel tools, for either business or personal travel. But where you cross the line is as you get into complex international or multi-destination trips. Those multiple layers of vendor-biasing, tax and currency adjustment calculators, service fees, and so forth, are gonna conspire against you and leave you with bad options and something pretty far from the best price. Do whatever you want, but the price difference I'm talking about could easily pay the forty bucks Joyce is going to charge you for handling your entire trip … and forget about the advantages of having a real pro on your side if that big ol' volcano blows.

Interestingly, I'm either Generation X or Generation Y, depending one which Wikipedia article you read, and I was a total skeptic of online travel sites even before I became what some might call an "industry insider." For business purposes I usually comply with corporate travel policy on my simple itineraries and use the online tool (we make it; it's called Amadeus e-Travel Management). It is perfect for that sort of stuff — fast, easy, and cost-effective. (Actually, for international bookings it's probably the best one out there.)

My personal testimony is that every trip I've ever bought in my life was purchased online — until a few years ago, when a co-worker recommended their travel agent to me. Honestly, I thought that travel sites were How You Book Trips. But I'll never go back, for personal trips costing more than, say, $1,500 USD of my own cash, because it's worth it to be taken care of by professionals. I pay someone to do my taxes too, because it's worthwhile to pay a professional to do something I can't do, and be assured of a quality result. (My taxes are not so straightforward, okay?)

That felt like over-sharing. Sorry. Back to real data, such as the Travel Agent Central article that came out last week with the latest American Express Spending & Saving Tracker report. It made me want to write about this offline-is-the-new-online trend because I'm part of the group of people who really appreciate live travel agents — and who don't feel they are replaceable.

Furthermore, this Amex report validates the year-ago observations of travel analyst group, PhoCusWright, who, in their June 2009 "Consumer Travel Report," indicated that online travel traffic saw fewer than half of online searchers turning into buyers; and nearly none of these online buyers reported their preference of a site translating into buyer loyalty. PhoCusWright also described the increasingly affluent 18-34 age bracket of travel buyers as "unreachables" due to a hardened skepticism toward advertising as well as that demographic's awareness of the aforementioned invisible hand of websites driving consumer behavior with their tricks.

I'll tell you who anyone is loyal to, though — John or Joyce Travel Agent, especially after they save your butt even one time from an indeterminate stay in, say, Belgrade, because of some Icelandic eruption.

Recall what Warren Buffett said: Price is what you pay; value is what you get.


Road Warrior • Miami •

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  • Michael Valkevich

    Scott, thanks for reading! You are correct, there is usually some sort of live support behind most online providers; but I agree that operationally this is an afterthought. The business is predicated on selling travel in a fully-automated, touchless environment. And as you point out, bigger-ticket and more complex travel purchases really do require an expert's touch. Especially for leisure travel, with all of us working extra hard with very little quality time off these days; we all want our hard-earned cash to buy us a journey without catastrophic headaches. '

    I'm reminded of a person I spoke to at a cocktail reception last year, who complained about a major online travel site offering poor support, leaving her stranded in Fez or Algiers or something on a 5-leg journey she booked online. She didn't want to pay a service charge to a live agency, which is a prime example of losing sight of the big picture.

    Good to hear that your business is moving along well - proof positive that true expertise is value worth paying for.

  • Roger Ellman

    Nothing like the happy wedding of internet convenience AND personal warm human service.
    They are happy partners and priduce the happiest of guests.

    That's what we have offered for 9 years

    Roger Ellman

  • scott bell

    Well said and well done article. We launched our business (1994) while Expedia was still in the womb of Microsoft. Our value proposition is all about complex leisure products/services. And we NEVER gave up on the idea that when it comes to more complicated types of vacations that people want to / need to speak to other people.

    There is a nuance behind story that you omitted. These days big travel companies do provide a means to be contacted VIA the phone but many take the very big risk of sending their calls to exotic places like Bangladesh and Manila. Our success as a company has all to do with the fact that we always kept our calls 100% onshore USA. We are an outsource customer contact service provider and our clients and their customers express their appreciation for the expertise in a context that makes sense.