Travel professionals responded with anger when President Barack Obama suggested last week that the Internet had made travel agents obsolete. But many also seized the opportunity as a teachable moment.
Obama was addressing a town hall meeting in Atkinson, Ill., when he used the travel agency industry to illustrate the point that automation and the Internet were replacing jobs.
“When was the last time somebody went to a bank teller instead of using the ATM, or used a travel agent instead of just going online? A lot of jobs that used to be out there requiring people now have become automated,” Obama said.
Agents were not pleased. “The comment makes me very mad,” said Ted Bradpiece, owner of Two Bears Travel in Los Angeles.
Travel agent Debbie Gorman wanted to know “who booked Michelle Obama’s trip to Spain?”
“I doubt President Obama booked that online,” Gorman of Fun ’n’ Sun Travel in Point Pleasant, N.J., said of the First Lady’s recent trip.
“This could potentially do a lot of damage,” said Peg Aikman, an independent contractor with Travel Experts. “Does our president really want to put more small businesses out of business?”
Sherrie Funk, co-owner of Just Cruisin’ Plus in Nashville, said the president “made such an unfortunate choice of a business in trying to drive home a point. A professional travel planner that provides excellent service is a valuable resource.
“After all, not everything is as simple as raising the debt ceiling or getting bipartisan support,” Funk quipped.
No disputing the facts
Not everyone in the trade dismissed Obama’s remarks entirely.
“The President is correct, to a point, in saying that automation has changed the landscape in the travel industry,” observed Karen McCrink, Vacation Travel Manager, Atlas Travel International. She noted that agents still “play a very important role in the lives of the traveling public.”
Agency owner Jason Coleman, CTC, ECCS, said you can’t argue with the fact that “efficiency has transformed our industry. We're all marketing, selling, and servicing today in different ways – with much greater efficiency and smaller staffs.
“I personally have never used a bank teller for my banking. I use self-checkout at the supermarket. I check in online for flights, and I buy books, clothes, and computers online,” said Coleman, president and chief visionary of Jason Coleman, Inc., in Los Angeles.
These are all things that have become more efficient and as such led to a reduction in the workforce. The same is true of travel agents,” added Coleman, who is chair of ASTA’s Young Professionals Society.
President Obama’s understanding of the travel agency industry is sorely lacking, agents charged.
Travel agent Colleen Gillette surmised that “the president has not handled his travel arrangements in years and has no idea of the skill level needed in arranging his travel or his family's travel arrangements.”
The president would benefit from an education about “how technology has lessened the need for tedious work and has helped to create a more sophisticated skill set within the travel industry. He need only take a look at the White House Travel Office for verification,” said Gillette, owner of New Paltz (N.Y.) Travel.
‘We are the Internet’
Drawing a distinction between travel agents and the Internet is erroneous, Coleman said. “The Internet is all of us as travel agents. Every agency or individual travel advisor that has a website is the Internet.”
And most agents do have websites with booking engines, as well as blogs and an active presence on social media outlets such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, noted Raquel Segura of AiresLibre Travel in Pembroke, Fla.
“American travelers now have the choice of booking a quick trip on their travel agent’s portal, or they can get the personalized service of a live travel agent they can trust,” Segura said.
President Obama might also be interested to learn that consumers are returning to travel agents – often because they’re fed up with trying to book their own travel, agents said.
“New clients who call us usually lead with that opening line, ‘I just got tired of trying to figure it all out on my own. There’s just too much to choose from, and so that’s why I am calling.’ The tide is turning, and the president is obviously clueless about this,” said Dena McDonald, manager of TIKI TRIPS® in Dallas.
McDonald also cited studies showing increases in consumer usage of agents. “Consumers are sick and tired of being overwhelmed with choices on the Internet.”
‘It’s up to us’
Obama’s comments renewed awareness of the need to educate the public about the value of agents and combat misperceptions.
“The public still has no idea what travel agents do,” said Les-Lee Roland, travel counselor and owner of the Package Deal, Sarasota, Fla. Roland charged industry organizations, including ASTA, ARC and CLIA, and travel agents themselves with “dropping the ball in getting that information out, educating clients on our importance to them.”
Libbie Rice, co-president of Ensemble Travel Group, observed that “it’s the role of all of us, whether individual agents or consortiums, to counter that myth” that travel agents no longer exist.
Segura agreed. “Travel agents need to unite and emphasize over and over to the American public the value of the service we provide our clients, the same way any other professional services industry would,” she said.
Yet raising travel agent visibility is more challenging today because so many are home-based, agents noted.
“I hear from some people that they have a hard time finding a travel agent because we are all in our homes now.,” said Ellen Paderson, owner of Smiles and Miles Travel, Inc., in South Easton, Mass.
Harvey Chipkin and Nick Verrastro contributed to this report.