Travel agents evolving with online booking services

Role of traditional travel agents still relevant despite emergence of online self-service booking sites, say market players, who note that offline agents are also moving online to be competitive.
Written by Liau Yun Qing, Contributor on

Traditional travel agents who provide face-to-face services are still relevant in the age of online self-service booking sites, note market players. These players are also providing services online but Web travel agents say they are not worried about the competition.

According to Sarah Loke, senior executive of marketing communication and PR at Tourism Management Institute of Singapore, the role of a travel agent is still relevant despite the popularity of online and mobile booking.

"There are always things that a machine cannot replace a human [for]," she said. For example, a travel agent will be able to provide insider travel tips, get bulk discount or amend travel dates when unforeseen circumstances crop up, she added.

For business travelers who cannot find a direct flight or a flight on a specific timing, an experienced travel agent would be able to find alternative connecting flights to get them to their destination in time for their business schedule, said Loke.

Online booking sites ZDNet Asia spoke to agreed that travel agents still have a role to play.

Robert Rosenstein. CEO of hotel-booking site Agoda.com, said: "There are always going to be agents with specific local or product expertise that adds value to customers where big online travel agents cannot."

For Rajiv Malhotra, head of marketing at Hotels.com Southeast Asia and India, travel agencies have a "wealth of experience and can give personalized advice, plan complicated air and land connections and help with special requests".

Travelers who are not very Internet-savvy might still need travel agents to help them, he said. However, frequent travelers who know what they want and usually prefer to book online, Malhotra noted.

Travel agents evolve with new tech
Lim Duanli, content and product manager at Singapore-based New Shan Travel Service, added that online and mobile booking have "nudged travel agents in the right direction". "To compete, travel agents need to provide the online and mobile options on top of their traditional face-to-face service," she added.

Instead of becoming irrelevant, Lim noted that travel agents' role have become more important in providing a "personal touch" to a traveler's holiday.

She noted that there is a trend in Europe where more consumers are returning back to the travel agent for a personalized face-to-face service. This trend is slowly picking up locally as well, Lim added. "After all, what travelers want most in their times of need is to have someone assist them. And the best candidate to do so is their travel agent back home," said the New Shan Travel Service product manager.

Alicia Seah, senior vice president of marketing and PR at CTC Travel, added that travel agents can help filter the "massive" information found on the Internet.

The Singapore-based travel agency also collaborates with online sites to promote packages, she noted. For example, it offered deals to Thailand on daily deal sites Groupon or Deals.com, she said.

Web travel agents not fear competition from traditional players
Despite traditional travel agencies including online services, the Web travel agents are not worried about the competition.

Rosenstein said the travel industry has always been one of the most crowded and competitive industries in the world. "Setting up a business in this space is relatively easy, but operating at scale and winning the hearts of customers is not," he added.

According to Malhotra, offline travel agencies and hotel booking sites target slightly different market segments and actually complement each other.

"In terms of product offerings, offline travel agents usually specialize in packaged tours and offer limited travel options," he said. In contrast, Hotels.com lists around 150,000 global properties along with 6.5 million reviews.

Isabel Gonzalez, director at CheapTickets.sg, added that since the company's core business is online travel, it is able to invest a "sizeable amount" in online technology while its traditional competitors may not.

She believes that there is space for both players to grow, especially in Singapore. "Currently, 35 percent of Europe’s online shopping revenue comes from travel, and compared to that of Singapore, only 5 percent is attributed to travel. Therefore, we believe that there is amazing amount of growth expected in Singapore," she added.

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