The American media giant Condé Nast has shared its latest podcast from its show, Travelogue, and it’s all about travel agents and exactly why they’re important.
Called, ‘What Is a Travel Specialist, Anyway?’, the podcast said the term ‘travel agent’ has been swapped for ‘travel specialist’, as they refresh their image and take on new and essential roles in the lives of travellers.
In particular, the podcast discussed when to use one, what to use one for, and all things specialised travel.
Featured guests were Laura Redmond, Condé Nast deputy digital director, Paul Brady, senior editor, and Mark Elwood, a contributing editor.
According to Elwood, people assume travel agents have been “rendered redundant”, so people in the business “need to rebrand themselves”.
Redmond, whose mother-in-law is a travel agent, claimed, “Travel agents still have a large role to play, in particular working a lot with customers in 20s and 30s,” despite the myth that younger generations don’t use agents.
“The job itself has changed,” said Brady. “A travel specialist is no longer offering advice on the best time to get on a flight to LAX, it’s more about how can you get me in touch with the best people of the street food market in Mexico City?
“I don’t know that, it’s hard to tell online, there’s a bazillion reviews and everyone thinks that they know, but I really only have this one day to go on a street food tour so I really want to get it right.
“So shouldn’t I trust somebody who specialises in it? And that’s why we call them specialists. They have this specialised knowledge that you trust and they back that up with actions.”
According to Elwood, a lot of high-end hotels will actually offer free bonuses if you book through a travel agent they trust and work with regularly, with the hotel almost offering it as a “thank you to travel specialists that book with them”.
But it’s their ‘niche’ and their passion that the trio agreed made travel specialists absolutely essential.
“What they tend to be is people with a passion for a particular area or activity,” said Elwood.
“So often if they love surfing they’ll become a specialist in that, or they specialise in Africa or they know everything about India, so you might not work with the same travel specialist for every trip because you’re looking for someone who really has granular knowledge of a place.
“They operate in such niche ways so that’s how they can make such a difference.”
“When I talk to travel specialists they all seem to have a true passion for going places,” added Brady.
“And the irony of them being travel specialists in their own area is they’re really good explorers. And they call other specialists to help them with their trips.
“The secret’s in the word ‘special,’ someone who has in-depth knowledge of a city, region or style of travel and can offer guidance. Maybe it’s a cruise guru, or a Caribbean know-it-all; it could also be an expert in navigating the ever-changing rules of Cuba travel.
“Online flight tools like Kayak and Cheapflights have changed an agent’s role drastically, but there’s still demand for trip planners—the living, breathing kind—to help you find the best hotel for your honeymoon, the right safari for the family, or, simply, a great place to go on vacation when time and inspiration are lacking.”
Brady noted that a travel professional may not be needed for “a short trip to Baltimore”, although longer international trips will always call for a specialist’s help.
“If you’re going to Baltimore for the weekend, you probably don’t [need a travel agent],” he said.
“But if you’re going on a long family road trip or an African safari, or you want to go to India for the first time, isn’t it nice to have an ‘air traffic controller’ of sorts keeping track of all those moving pieces and making sure people are there when they’re supposed to be – and critically – having someone to call when they’re not there?”
Redmond agreed, saying you’re not likely to get the same kind of dedication and customer service from an OTA.
“That’s a huge thing you don’t really think about when they’re booking lots of planes or tours or trips online; the customer service is kind of bunk.
“So say with Expedia, how many layers are you going to go through to find the source of the problem or someone that can help you?”
For Elwood, it’s about the connections a travel specialist possesses.
“What the industry calls ‘ground operators’ are the magic workers,” he said. “They’re the ones who can fix anything.
“If you want to go to Jaipur and want to have a private tour of the palace that no one can get into, with the right ground operator you can get into that, but you can’t find these ground operators – but a good travel specialist can.”
To listen to the whole thing, check out the Travelogue podcast here.