Insights into American Travelers and Their Use of Travel Agents, from MMGY’s Steve Cohen

by Cheryl Rosen

When your title is “vice president of insights,” it’s nice to have some hard data to work with. 

So Steve Cohen is getting ready for his favorite—and busiest—time at MMGY Global, when a batch of fresh survey numbers come in.  

In addition, almost 3,000 travelers will be filling out the surveys that go out next week for the Portrait of the American Traveler; their answers will be back by late March. That’s when Cohen’s job really gets interesting. 

In all that data Cohen expects to see a continued upward trend in the use of travel agents.  

“I’ve been doing research on travel agents for three or four years, and one big change we continue to see is that the interest in using travel agents has been going up and up,” Cohen told TMR.  

MMGY asked 2,800 travelers in 2013, and again in 2015, if they had used a travel agent to book their last vacation. Where just 12% had in 2013, the number rose by 33%, to 16%, in 2015. And when asked what they used a travel agent for, usage was up significantly in eight out of nine categories, including to book a hotel, to get inspiration about a destination, to book a vacation package,  to buy insurance, to book a cruise, to book a rental car, and to buy attraction or event tickets. The only category that did not increase was to buy an airline ticket. 

Then MMGY asked about the likelihood that they would “use the services of a travel agent in the next two years for at least one vacation”—and the number rose again by almost 30%, from 17% in 2013 to 21% in 2015. 

More encouraging news came when MMGY broke out the numbers by income level and age group. In the $250,000+ salary range, 30% said they were going to use a traditional travel agent in the next two years. Of those, 92% said they want to work with traditional agents because of their “knowledge of destinations and travel service providers.” Tied for the number-two answer were “they have the experience to help me book a better trip than I could on my own” and “they have the ability to provide an extra level of service when things go wrong.” 

The two generation most likely to use a travel agent were “the Mature Travelers, whom we would expect, and the Millennials, whom we would not expect,” Cohen said. 

What Millennials want
In the ensuing months Cohen has spoken with many focus groups of Millennial travelers, he said, and he hears that their primary concern when booking travel is to make sure they are getting the best price and not being ripped off.   

Millennials actually want two things, Cohen said: First, “to find a travel agent they can trust to get the best price and not spend all their time doing it themselves. And second, when they are going to an unusual location or planning a complicated itinerary, they want someone who has been there. So they want someone to help them choose a destination and recommend a hotel for them based on what they need.” 

Cohen also noted that the travel industry has an unfortunate inclination to picture “Millennials” as they were when we first started to hear about them, just as they were graduating college some years back. But the top end of that group is 35 years old; they are grown men and women, and not relying on their parents to “take them on vacation.” 

Also noteworthy to a “vice president of insights,” Cohen said, is the evidence of the growth of travel agents he has seen with his own two eyes. “I was surprised recently at the number of brick-and-mortar travel agencies I have seen on the streets in cities like Toronto and New York. All of a sudden, it seems, they’re back; I’m seeing them where I haven’t seen them in years.” 

Where usage of an OTA was four or five times higher than for a travel agency, now they are tied, Cohen noted, as hotels have been reserving the very best prices for their loyalty-program members, causing usage of OTAs to decline rapidly. 

The last MMGY survey of travelers went out in October and now is being collated; results should be coming out the end of February. Cohen says he anticipates that “a lot of the data will be based on the fact that the market has not been in a good place this year. But based on the work I’ve done, I believe travelers will still take that bucket-list cruise.” 

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