Travel agents VS online

Rising to the challenge


What do travel agents offer that people can’t get by booking online? The role of advisors extends far beyond being there for clients during the worst case scenario…

Since the onset of travel bans and restrictions in the wake of COVID-19, travel agents across the country — and around the world — were recognized for being invaluable to their clients during a time of crisis.

Now that the dust has settled, we asked travel advisors to weigh in with their thoughts on what they offer that can’t be replicated by a direct booking. Here’s what they had to say.

“When people ask me this, I often list off a number of reasons, but to be honest, my only answer now is COVID-19,” McKenzie McMillan, a travel consultant with The Travel Group, Vancouver, tells Travel Courier. “When it comes to COVID-19, I think travel agents have more than justified their worth, with the thousands of travellers who have made safe journeys home, thanks to dedicated agents who jumped into action to serve their clients.”

Since the internet began to excel in travel bookings, he says travel agents have evolved from a tool for booking to experts in consulting.

“While OTAs may provide cheap deals, they can’t let you know what the best seat on the plane is or if you can make that 60 minute connection at Heathrow (spoiler alert — you can’t),” he adds. “Beyond background information that agents can supply, we also leverage our relationships with tour operators, hoteliers, and suppliers, to maximize our client’s investment. I have yet to see Captain Obvious get you the best room location, provide a welcome bottle of champagne, or an F&B credit.”

Similarly, Stephanie Mercredi, who runs a live travel agency with second year travel and tourism students at SAIT (Custom Travel Solutions) in Calgary, notes that what agents offer over an online booking has become pretty obvious over the last few months.

“Anyone who used a travel agent prior to COVID-19, has had someone to help them negotiate through all of the cancellations and how to move going forward,” she says. “For those that have booked themselves online, they need to do all the work themselves.”

Although the COVID-19 crisis has raised awareness of the importance of using an agent, Carla MacKay, the owner of Travel Our Way in New Glasgow, NS, says the value of their services extends beyond being there for clients during a time of need.

“Those who booked online are going it alone or reaching out to agents for assistance. I believe travel is easy to book, hard to fix and many online shoppers just learned this lesson,” she says. “Travel agents offer knowledge and experience as well as client advocacy. My personal travel as well as that of my team gives our agency firsthand knowledge to enhance our clients’ travel experience. Our sales volume puts us at the forefront with some of our suppliers with whom we have built strong relationships. This allows our advocacy to be enhanced. Likewise, we have more opportunities for negotiating promotions and trip giveaways to support local community causes.”

For Megan Baugh of Baconko Travel Edmonton, the service travel agents offer can’t possibly be compared to booking online.

“First and foremost, a travel agent brings expertise. Most people travel to an all-inclusive hotel a few times in their lives or maybe once a year. As an agent whose specialization requires an in-depth knowledge of all-inclusive hotels, I travel multiple times a year, experiencing multiple properties on each trip, and I have either stayed at or visited just about every hotel in Mexico and the Caribbean,” she says. “For clients with specific hotel requirements, researching every all-inclusive hotel would be an extremely daunting task, while I would have all of this knowledge from my personal experience. There really is no comparison. In addition to this, a good travel agent will provide you with tips and information specific to your destination or hotel chain. Travel agents also have relationships with suppliers which can assist them in advocating on your behalf in the case that there are any issues.”

Suit up

When someone books with a travel advisor they get someone that is working for them, points out Michelle Gaudet of Inspired Travel Adventures, Nexion Travel Group. 

“A professional that has first-hand advice and knowledge,” she says. “A good travel advisor knows their preferred suppliers and which one delivers the experience the client is looking for. It’s the difference between a custom made suit or buying something off the rack in a discount store.”

Beyond the obvious, Shirley Noel with TPI in Winnipeg, MB, the first things that come to mind are personal service and peace of mind.

“My clients constantly tell me how much they enjoy the fact that they can just call me up and tell me what they would like and I take care of all the little details for them. The clients call and chat with me about themselves allowing us to build a relationship,” she says. “I get to know their likes and dislikes and do my best to find them the trip that fits them best. If they book online, they need to do it all themselves and the computer doesn’t know if the trip they chose is a good fit or not. I believe in serving every client in the same manner as I would want to be served myself.”

Shawna Irish, a travel consultant with Flight Centre Penticton in Penticton, BC, agrees that the person-to-person relationship is one of the biggest things agents provide.

“You’re not able to get that unique personal connection when you book online. Not only that, you have the advantage of utilizing our guidance and experience. We do this every day, so something that may take you hours to research we are already thinking of some suggestions in the back of our minds,” she says. “We have a great support system as travel agents as well. Our relationships with suppliers and knowing we have people backing us when we need it can sometimes make a really big difference.” 

“Beyond background information that agents can supply, we also leverage our relationships with tour operators, hoteliers, and suppliers, to maximize our client’s investment.

I have yet to see Captain Obvious get you the best room location, provide a welcome bottle of champagne, or an F&B credit.”

McKenzie McMillan

Finally, Kerry Wirkkunen, intermediate travel consultant at CAA North & East Ontario in Thunder Bay says travel agents offer compassion, empathy, knowledge, and personal service.

“I had a client who arrived in Paris and couldn’t find his transfer pick up location, as there was construction at the location indicated in his package. He called me and said, I am sorry to bother you, I told you I wouldn’t bother you – but this is the situation. I asked him to give me a few moments and I’d call him right back. I called the supplier and got the revised location, I then called him back and gave him the details,” she recalls. “About an hour later he texted me – ‘OMG I just realized it is 4:00 a.m. at home, I am so sorry to have woken you up!’ What booking engine could do that for you?”

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