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Travel agents, wake up and smell the Internet.
Yeoh Siew Hoon / SHY Ventures
Thursday, 3rd November 2005
 
I've said this and I will say it again and again till traditional travel agents in Asia not only hear, but listen and act.

I have long been a supporter of travel agents, that much maligned middleman whom everyone's been saying for years will go the way of the dinosaur.

They've been saying it for more than a decade at least but still, the travel agency community lives on in one form or the other.
The first harbinger of their demise was during the days of the Internet bubble when everyone thought the whole world would go online and bypass the human route when it came to booking services such as travel.

Well, that didn't happen as we know. We human beings are slower to change than the pace of technology and the bubble burst.

As online travel websites floundered and crashed, brick and mortar travel agents cheered and brought out their champagne.
I shared their joy. As dependent as I am on technology to make my life work these days – have you ever lost your mobile phone or had to do without your laptop for a week – I am a champion of the human touch.

Through the Internet hype, some travel agents revised their business models and stuck to them. Some did not and most went back to their old ways of doing business. Whatever changes that were made were forced upon them – for example, airlines cutting commissions.

And then came the disaster years – September 11, SARS, the Bali bombing – and everyone was just scrambling to survive.

Forget online, service fees, innovation, service quality – it was all about cash flow, cost management and, of course, price cutting.

I fear though that the second wave is coming, one which if travel agents continue to ignore could wipe a lot of them out.

And I am not saying this just because America Online last week launched a test version of a travel website and promoted it by saying, "Want to bypass your travel agency? Tired of searching through multiple sites for the best deals on travel? AOL thinks it has the answer, with its new search site. It's just in beta, but it could change travel booking as we know it!"

Here's an online giant who's coming in from outside and who's making no bones about what it wants to do – bypass all travel agencies, online or offline.

I say what I say for several other reasons.
  • Technology is more solid and sustainable this time round.
  • Consumers have become smarter – in most cases, smarter than travel agents.
  • Suppliers have to cut costs. They too have to survive.
  • There are new players that are accelerating online adoption in Asia – low cost airlines, for one.
I know I am not saying anything new. Sometimes I feel like a broken record. I have also heard it spoken at many conferences by many speakers but I fear it's falling on either deaf or selectively deaf ears.

But because I believe that sometimes you have to repeat, repeat and repeat till someone gets it, I will say it one more time.
For travel agents to survive in this new era of distribution, they have to add real value, both to the consumer and to the supplier.

I say this with renewed vigour because now that I am officially a SOHO (Small Office, Home Office), I do all my bookings myself. In the past, working for a corporation, we were forced to use our corporate travel agent who, even if they didn't get us the best fares, got the business because of global consolidation.

In the beginning of my life as a solo warrior, I continued to use my travel agent out of habit, I suppose, and a degree of loyalty.

I then started flirting online when I was offered more choices in travel websites. The flirtation became a full-blown affair when low cost airlines came on the scene, offering fares which, for the price of a haircut, you could fly to Hong Kong.

I flirted with the low cost airlines but found them a tad unreliable and restrictive for my purposes. Plus, I had been spoiled by full service carriers in Asia. And then airlines like Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines joined the carnival and offered fares which, for the price of maybe two haircuts, you could fly to Hong Kong.

But still I didn't give up on travel agents. Last week, I asked for a booking on a Singapore Airlines return trip to Paris. The fare they quoted me was higher than if I were to book online on SIA's website. Guess what I did?

Granted, point-to-point travel is easier for consumers to book online. Not complicated itineraries which was why I also went to a travel agent to ask advice on the best way I could fly to New York and Paris on one ticket. What I realised with this experience is they are good at doing what you tell them to do but not at telling you what to do.

What agents forget is that these days, it is so easy for consumers to do their own homework and, to earn their keep as the middleman, they have to be one step ahead.

Thing is, I know they know that. What I don't know is why they don't do anything about it.

For years, we have talked about training, technology adoption, service culture, innovation; yet there are few adopters.

I am not saying that online booking is easy. By no stretch of the imagination is it perfect. You have to have patience and persistence. Sometimes you want to tear your hair out. But what it gives the consumer is empowerment. You are in control.

With the travel agent, you hand over control. And let's face it, would you hand over control to someone you don't trust will do the best job for you?



The SHY Report
A regular column on news, trends and issues in the hospitality industry by one of Asia's most respected travel editors and commentators, Yeoh Siew Hoon.

Siew Hoon, who has covered the tourism industry in Asia/Pacific for the past 20 years, runs SHY Ventures Pte Ltd. Her company's mission is "Content, Communication, Connection". She is a writer, speaker, facilitator, trainer and events producer. She is also an author, having published "Around Asia In 1 Hr: Tales of Condoms, Chillies & Curries". Her motto is ‘free to do, and be'.
Contacts: Tel: 65-63424934, Mobile: 65-96801460

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