For the last few years, the American Society of Travel Agents’ (ASTA) annual consumer survey has documented the steady rise in travel agent usage. But according to the most recent survey, that growth may be tempering.
In New York to announce the results of the annual ASTA consumer travel survey, president Zane Kerby said ASTA sees a “slight pause in the rise of usage of travel agents,” settling in around “20% right now.”
According to Kerby, Penn Schoen Berland, the research arm of Burson-Marsteller, their new public relations agency, conducted this year’s research. ASTA didn’t ask the travel agent usage question exactly the same as it has in the past. Thus, there isn’t a precise comparison to previous years.
“The one bright spot is that millennials are using travel agents higher than any other group,” Kerby said, noting how the survey showed 43% were very satisfied with their most recent travel agent experience, and another 37% said they were satisfied. (This finding has been consistent for the last few years of ASTA’s annual consumer survey.)
Also, Millennials feel the strongest that travel agents are looking out for the consumer’s best interests (56%).
This means agents are popular with the largest age group, and a younger one, boding well for future bookings through agents as these travelers grow more prosperous and set behaviors for their children.
Among GenXers, 38% were very satisfied, and 33% satisfied. Slightly more than 70% of Baby Boomers said they were satisfied with their last travel agent booking.
Millennials seek out agents to help them recommend activities (27%), organizing tours (23%) and decide on an overall budget (20%). “This is where the agent is transitioning into an advisor,” said ASTA director of communications, Erika Richter.
Increasing visibility remains critical
Still, Kerby conceded that agents continue to face a relevancy issue, especially as more agents operate either from their homes or offices not on a main thoroughfare where consumers can be reminded that travel agents do indeed still exist.
“People aren’t against travel agent usage. They are more or less agnostic. They don’t know where to find them,” he said, pointing out that ASTA’s travelsense.org (where consumers can find ASTA agent members) attracts about 50,000 hits a month.
Also, years of being trained to research vacations on the internet has created a base of the American population who enjoy planning their own travel.
“People say they love planning their trips. Sometimes it’s more fun to plan it than go on it,” Kerby said. “Travel agent messaging to consumers has to be get out there and see everything you can see on the internet, and then call me, and we can plan this together.”
“Agents need to find a way to insert themselves into that research process. So if I owned a travel agency, I’d say you have to snuggle up to your customers. Get a good CRM [customer relationship management system]. It’s really, really important. Agents may have tacit knowledge of their customers, but I don’t get the sense that it is written down and codified.”
Richter said that some agents are developing VIP Clubs for loyal clientele, offering regular hotel room upgrades to those travelers. “We’re continuing to get that kind of feedback from our members, to see what added value agents can offer to the traveler experience.” she said.
ASTA also is working with Burson-Marsteller to create a toolkit that will help agents promote themselves better. “Agents need to get into the local media and be seen as an expert.”
Slightly more than 1500 Americans ages 25-70 participated in the survey online, from April 9-14, 2017.