Written By: Jesse Morris, Owner – We Book Travel LLC
What a world we have chosen to be a part of. Other industries have been volatile but our ability to adapt has been tested time and again over the decades. The first travel agency was created in 1841 by Thomas Cook. Yes, that Thomas Cook. The one who finally succumbed to the pressures of change back in September 2019. Their collapse caught so many off guard but fortunately another company came along and acquired the Thomas Cook retail locations and saved quite a few jobs in the process.
Cruise travel started to gain in popularity and there was an uptick in the travel world until the unsinkable Titanic went down in 1912. While there were positives such as a ton of safety improvements, it also led to a downturn in travelers as they thought twice about cruising. As we all know, this will not be the last time people reconsider cruising.
It wasn’t until the 1920s that the travel agent industry really gained in popularity. With air travel becoming available to the general public people could, for the first time, easily see more of the world than ever before. But just as things were looking stable along came World War II. This was the travel agent world’s first major downturn. Of course, after the war ended people needed to get away and escape the post war blues. Package prices became more affordable and travel agencies started to grow again.
There were several more ups and downs over the years but let’s turn our eyes to more recent decades. In one of the biggest shifts in the way travelers do business, Expedia launched its website in 1996. This was a huge blow to travel agencies but an incredible boon to travelers. No more did they have to go see someone to make arrangements and they could easily shop, and price compare online. Many agencies were unable to adapt and shift from order taker to advisor. People began to ask the question “Why do I need a travel agent if I can do it myself?” Those agencies who could show value survived, those who didn’t have a good answer to that question folded.
Just a short five years later the travel world took another major hit with the tragedy of September 11th. Domestically this was the first time since Pearl Harbor that people were seriously frightened that something so serious could occur close to home. Ushered in were a sea of changes in how we travel ranging from taking off shoes and belts at the airport to ensuring that carry on items were limited in size and scope. Travel agents were critical to helping educate their clients on these changes. It took a while for people to start to feel comfortable traveling again until major safety measures were implemented across all forms of travel.
Another hit to travel agents came in the form of AirBnB in 2008. Similarly to when Expedia launched, AirBnB gave travelers a reason to look elsewhere from travel agents. Not all that glitters is gold however and while AirBnB is still popular people are beginning to question the safety and security related to them. People are asking their trusted travel advisor more frequently for their recommendations as things such as cancellations without warning occur and hidden cameras are found.
Social media’s impact on the travel industry cannot be understated. From reviews and recommendations, blog posts, podcasting, YouTube productions and more, agents now have the ability to build relationships virtually with potential clients. Fewer and fewer store fronts exist now (due to profitability mainly) and social media helps advisors find a way to be visible in a way that retail venues couldn’t and at a micro-fraction of the cost.
And now for the pandemic. Much like the rest of history there are positives and negatives for the travel advisor world. The global shut down has caused so many agents to lose huge portions of their booked business in the short term. Many agents will go a year or more without seeing any income. This will cause many agencies to disappear. However, much like the past events those who survive and adapt to our new environment will have an opportunity to reap the benefits. Travel advisors have received great publicity for how they have handled their clients cancelled trips while OTAs have been punished by the general public. People are talking more and more about the value that comes with a travel agent. Cruise travel has been particularly abused by government and health officials (fairly or unfairly is for you to decide) and so alternative vacation options are getting more visibility. Agents who have successfully pivoted their business to offer domestic options and cruise alternatives have seen success. Our travel world is changing rapidly, and it will require each of us to adapt just like our predecessors did over the decades or we will fail.
Some are calling Covid-19 an “existential threat to our industry”. The truth is that many agencies will not survive without revenue or major intervention. But for those of us who come out on the other side and are successful at showing value and staying in contact with our clients, we are poised for a tremendous opportunity. People want to travel and will do so again. Will you be able to adapt and take advantage?
The above isn’t a comprehensive list of the changes to our industry over the years. (airlines cutting agents out for example) Was there an event that changed your agency and how did you adapt to survive and thrive? What are you doing now to ensure your survival? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and share your stories.