If you’re of a certain age, you probably remember visiting a local travel agency. You’d walk in the door, tell an agent where you wanted to go and twiddle your thumbs while he or she made cryptic phone calls and searched mysterious databases. You may have been going to Cleveland, but the posters of Maui and the Mediterranean were awfully enticing.
These days, that storefront travel agency is probably a Starbucks or Jamba Juice. After all, who needs a travel agent when you can hop online, surf the Web and book just about any flight, hotel or around-the-world adventure yourself? Look up “dinosaur” in the dictionary, went the thinking, and you’d find a picture of a travel agent.
As it turns out, travel agents may have more in common with Mark Twain than Tyrannosaurus Rex — i.e., rumors of their death have been greatly exaggerated. And thanks to a handful of innovative Web sites, both agents and the travelers they serve are reaping the benefits.
Expert help for complex trips
In a nutshell, sites such as Tripology.com and Zicasso.com serve as matchmakers between travelers, primarily those with complex or exotic plans, and travel agents with the appropriate expertise. Conceivably, your local agent might fit the bill — assuming they still maintain a walk-in office — but it’s also possible that the real expert on your destination is on the other side of the planet.
“Everybody knows a travel agent,” says John Peters, president and CEO of Tripology, “but not everybody knows who’s a specialist in their particular destination or how to find them.” And the more complicated the itinerary, the more important it becomes to find the agent who can put it all together: “Even little twists can make a square-peg trip not fit in the round hole of a typical online booking.”
At Tripology, visitors create (free) online trip requests inputting information on everything from proposed destination(s) and services needed to approximate budget and preferred style of travel. Requests are then matched to agents with the most appropriate expertise, three of whom can purchase the lead and make contact. Launched in June 2007, the site now has a database of 7,500 travel specialists and has processed almost 40,000 requests.
One recent request, for example, involved an American couple hoping to get married at Victoria Falls in southern Africa. Faced with exorbitant airfares for their group of nine, they submitted a trip request, which led them to Sonny Chatrath, president of Air-Savings.com, a New Jersey–based travel agent. “I got them on Air Zimbabwe and saved them almost 50 percent,” says Chatrath. “They even sent me pictures of their wedding.”
Lending Tree for travelers
For Yvette Woolfolk, a court analyst in Sacramento, the right travel agent turned out to be one-third of the way around the globe. Planning a trip to Spain and Morocco this spring, she turned to Zicasso and got connected with an agency in Madrid familiar with both countries. “They arranged a guided day trip to Morocco for us and found us a flight between Madrid and Seville that was cheaper than the train,” she says. “We never would’ve found that on our own.”
Zicasso, which debuted in March, also invites users to make (free) trip requests to a network of pre-qualified travel agents and tour operators. Based on the parameters users input, up to three agents will then respond with personalized itineraries that can be accepted as is or modified as necessary. “It’s like Lending Tree plus eBay plus Web 2.0 for travel,” says Brian Tan, founder and CEO.
As part of its Web 2.0 focus, the site features a community area where users can post questions on everything from the best time to visit Goa, India (October–March) to wedding venues in Lapland (try the Ice Chapel Kakslauttanen). Earlier this month, the site expanded its offerings further by unveiling 500 sample itineraries (customizable) and a slate of new travel companies that specialize in countries, such as Argentina, Costa Rica and Vietnam, that still provide good value for the U.S. dollar.
Online agencies add a personal touch
Meanwhile, even the major online travel agencies are seeing the value of augmenting the online experience with personalized service. This spring, Orbitz.com officially introduced its Live Destination Specialist program, which makes destination-specific experts available to users researching vacation packages.
For example, when a user browses packages in Hawaii and a specialist is available, a box will pop up asking if they’d like to talk to a destination expert. If interested, they can enter their phone number and immediately receive a call from a customer-service rep with first-hand experience in the Islands.
Experts are currently available for Hawaii, Cozumel and the Yucatan, with Orlando and Las Vegas set to launch over the next few weeks. “A lot of users want personal advice,” says Drew Miller, director of tele-sales. “We want to make it faster and easier for them to book their trips.”