Consumers Continue To Use Travel Agents Despite Online Push

by Richard D’Ambrosio

While online travel agencies (OTA) and Google dominate Internet travel searches, travel agents have held onto their booking market share, a leading consumer travel survey shows.
 
When asked if they plan to use a “traditional travel agent” for a vacation in the next two years, 23% of consumers responding to MMGY’s Portrait of the American Traveler 2017 study said yes. That’s down slightly from 25% in last year’s survey, but still up significantly from 17% in 2015.
 
Based on the survey’s margin of error, the results are essentially flat, a finding similar to an American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) survey published this spring.
 
“This is good news. We’re not seeing nearly the growth we saw in the past, but the use of agents is staying the same,” said Steve Cohen, MMGY vice president of insights. “The desire of the traveling public is to have someone to trust, and they trust human travel agents more.”
 
Consumers value agents’ know-how
Consumers responding to the MMGY survey said the top three things they value in a travel agent are: agents’ knowledge of destinations and travel service providers; their ability to take the hassle out of booking travel, and agents’ extra service when things go wrong.
 
Millennials are most likely to use a traditional travel agent, the survey found. One in three (33%) Millennial respondents said they planned to consult a travel agent, followed by Matures (26%), Boomers (18%) and Generation X (17%).
 
Of the respondents who said they were likely to use a travel agent, 83% said they would consult an agent when booking a vacation package or tour, while 73% said they would do so for a cruise or hotel/resort stay.
 
Agents can combat online competition with personal marketing
During a press event this week, Cohen noted that Google is now the No. 1 online site for travel searches, surpassing Expedia in the 2017 survey. Google was tied for second with Travelocity in MMGY’s 2016 study.
 
Cohen said he believes travel agents can blunt the impact of OTAs by leveraging their strengths, especially the connections they create with their customers.
 
“With the importance travelers place on the opinions of friends and family, the opportunity is through referrals,” Cohen said. He recommended that travel agents think about developing programs that provide clients with incentives for referrals.
 
Cohen noted that 58% of Millennials told MMGY they like using social media to share a record of their travel experiences, while 40% said, “I post my vacation photos on social media to make my friends/family jealous.”
 
“If I have used an agent successfully, an agent should incent me to share my positive experience online. I am your best way to get that message out there. All of these email marketing programs agents utilize will be a failure if there is no equity in the name behind it.”
 
Without clients’ social media testimonials, agents “have no more credibility than Google or the OTAs,” Cohen said.
 
Consumers’ online travel behavior
MMGY found that more than half of travelers use search engines when comparing the prices and features of travel service providers, up from 45% in 2016 and 39% in 2015. Also, nearly half of travelers consider search engines when looking for travel advice and ratings, and about four in 10 consider search engine results when looking for ideas and inspiration or making reservations.
 
“From its flights and destinations products to the recently released Google Trips, Google has been very proactive in the travel and tourism sector, and their efforts are clearly paying off in consumer use and perception,” said Craig Compagnone, MMGY Global’s senior vice president of business strategy.
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