Rise of online travel platforms, social media and DIY tools seemed to have put the conventional travel agents into a perennial decline. Almost anyone could get online, book a ticket on an airline website; call up hotels listed on Expedia, Trivago or the websites of hotel chains to book rooms. So why would anyone need a travel agent, right?
All such notions of travel agents becoming irrelevant in the digital era have been dashed by the pandemic. Despite their incredibly valuable professional services, travel agents don’t usually get the due understanding, but all that is changing now.
Regularly changing protocols, lack of accurate or updated information on Do’s and Don’ts, as well as tons of other reasons made people realize that travel agents are more valuable to the ecosystem than ever in the new normal. Even the frequent travellers and jetsetters who handled travel arrangements on their own, now seek help.
Another factor that works well for travel agents is that with the rise in information, accessibility, and options, the number of travellers to international and domestic destinations has increased manifold in recent years.
It is not uncommon to see a travel agent offers package deals that are at par or even cheaper than what a traveller would get through direct booking channels. Travel agents have their own leverage in the market that not only enables them to get unbeatable prices on hotel inventory, flight tickets, but also access to preferential treatment that might lead to superior guest experience.
Expert agents with lengthy experience of operating in the field can provide value additions such as fast-tracking through airport immigrations, help in Visa and passport related issues, and flexible, contingency support such as room upgrades, meal customizations, help if someone misses a connecting flight, loses luggage or faces any other problems. In fact, it is not unthinkable for them to make arrangements for exclusive experiences that a traveller won’t normally get.
With the surge in digital travel business post-pandemic, it is the small travel agencies, and individual operators that stand to gain the most from the upcoming rush. As elaborated above, the personalization, access and experience that a specialist travel agent offers might not be matched by either DIY attempts or large-scale platforms.
However, the rider for travel agents is that they need to reinvent themselves, and to transform their operations to align better with the customers. Revamping the websites, integration of chat support, digital and cashless payments, flexible rescheduling, cancellations and refunds etc., are some of the things that every travel agent needs to review in the new normal.
During the peak pandemic waves, travel agents suffered a major loss of revenue, especially during the tourist season. That’s where most of them are currently not in a position to spend heavily on digitization or to acquire capacities to compete with larger brands. However, as a part of an intensely competitive market where margins are tight, they can’t afford to lose out on the upcoming rush as well. That’s where a new digitally-driven ecosystem has to emerge for the agents. They might not have pan-India specialization, but could be at par with the best in providing services in a particular country, state or city. Alternatively, a small travel agency is unlikely to have budget to build AI and analytics-driven platforms, apps, and fully functional websites.
By joining platform-driven ecosystems, such small agents can get access to all these digital assets and capabilities at very low costs. Further, the B2B platform companies would offer in-depth market expertise, marketing support, best-priced inventories, and sensitize travel operators on the best practices in sync with the changing times.
From the time when a traveller puts up an initial query to the end of the trip, and writing the review, digital travel ecosystem platforms are now enabling travel agents to set up an end-to-end seamless digital experience. In such a digitally-driven travel ecosystem of the future, travel agents are going to be back at the steering wheel, and there is no doubt about it.
(Arun Bagaria is Co-Founder, TravClan-B2B travel platform)