While travel agents are experiencing a resurgence in usage and popularity these days, surveys still show that only about one in five travelers book with a professional advisor.
So, when Karis Lederman, a travel consultant with Legacy Travel, in Plano, Texas, found herself on the phone last November with John Elmore, an Expedia fan from nearby Richardson, she knew she had a rare opportunity to convert a holdout.
Elmore and his wife had been looking at Apple Vacations’ packages for a couple’s trip to Mexico, and found Legacy Travel through the “Ask an Agent” search page of their website. (Apple provides consumers with agent listings based on the proximity to a traveler’s zip code.)
On that page, under the title, “Why you should use a travel agent,” Apple asks: “Why are travel professionals the right call? They do the work so you don’t have to! They will help you narrow down your options and stay within your budget. The expertise, guidance, and personal service these partners provide are invaluable.”
Elmore clicked on the Legacy listing because he had specific questions about resorts “and didn't trust all the marketing and videos and promos. My wife and I don't get to travel together much with three small children and I couldn't risk having a bad experience,” Elmore told Travel Market Report.
Addressing the skeptic
Despite Apple’s sales pitch, at the beginning of his conversation with Lederman, Elmore asked what the benefit of using Legacy would be over his booking through Expedia.
“I didn't think it would be a real benefit, I thought they'd try to upsell me,” Elmore said. “I thought it would be more expensive. I thought they probably get kickbacks for promoting certain properties. I thought if I actually book through them, the communication will drop off as soon as I pay. I was literally wrong on every account.”
Lederman recalled, “I always tell people that, when they call us, a real person answers the phone upfront versus going through an annoying automated system in order to talk to a human (if at all).
“We also are here for our clients before, during and after they travel. I care about my reputation as an advisor, so I don't sell something I'm not confident in sending my clients to. Unlike Expedia, which sells just about everything under the sun. He did not challenge me. He was delighted that he had found us.”
Once Lederman got past the opening sales discussion, she moved on to matching the couple with the right vacation. “John wanted to take his wife on a nice trip for their anniversary,” Lederman said. “They had not been able to do anything nice for their anniversary since their kids were born.”
They were seeking a romantic, adults-only resort, “with good food and a good beach,” Lederman said. Ultimately, the client went with Unico Riviera Maya, and Lederman emailed the resort directly to submit their specific requests for a top floor room and a late check out.
“Karis removed all the unknowns and guesswork … it was nothing but convenience,” Elmore said.
A big “save” for the client’s vacation involved travel documents. Legacy Travel sends every client a series of emails with helpful tips and advice. One particular tip in their first client email is a reminder to check their passports to ensure they meet their destinations’ requirements.
Elmore replied back to that email that his passport was expired by a few months. He praised Legacy for the reminder: "THANK GOD you told me to check my passport … I NEVER would have if I would have booked online (again thankful for YOU!)," Lederman said.
If something can go wrong, it probably will
Like Lederman told the client during her first phone consultation with him, one of the reasons most often mentioned for using a travel agent versus booking direct is the fact that a live agent will be there for you in the event of a potential disruption to your trip.
This is something Apple Vacations even notes on its agent search web page: “And in the event that something goes wrong, you have a professional to go to for help,” the company says on a rotating banner explaining the value of an agent.
Sure enough, the Elmores experienced a two-hour delay on their departure from Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.
“We were sitting on the plane to leave and the captain deboarded the plane due to landing gear issues (thank God!). I immediately emailed Karis and told her the issue. She immediately replied and said we would be given a prorated refund if we missed a night due to travel trouble and that she would call the resort and our airport transfer to let them know of the travel change,” Elmore said. (Lederman had also assisted the Elmores in purchasing travel insurance.)
While Lederman didn’t need to work any magic, like rebooking the couple on a different flight, it was her availability and communications to them that put the Elmores at ease and made a difference.
“They were worried about their hotel transfer from the airport to the hotel,” Lederman said. “We communicated via email back and forth until they boarded the plane. I assured them that their private transfers would be awaiting on their arrival, even with the delay.”
When they arrived, the client raved about the Amstar private transfer Lederman booked them to the resort. “Totally worth it,” he wrote. “Great bilingual driver. He was dressed in an Amstar shirt and all was well. Totally felt worth the money. Ricardo was awesome.”
A customer for life
The rest of the trip went flawlessly. But one particular email summed up the client’s overall experience. After they finally boarded their delayed flight in Dallas, Elmore emailed Lederman: “Karis/Legacy > Expedia!!!"
“When you travel internationally, it was such a gift to have a person who actually cared and was responsive,” Elmore wrote Travel Market Report in an email. “If that was done online, there would have been zero help. And then the owner of the travel agency (Catherine Banks) emailed us before the trip and gave us her personal cell phone number in case we had any trouble while abroad … Are you kidding me?!?!”
Elmore realizes now that OTA’s offer the “same price, but zero service,” when compared to live travel agents. “So why not actually use a local, expert who is a person that wants to serve your travel needs — versus an automated service with a call center customer service line, at best, and zero investment to actually help.
“I was always tempted that travel agency meant more time, hassle, sales pitches, and that online equaled convenience and savings. I was wrong — the price was the same in my case, the service off the charts and the convenience? In this day and age of automation, I believe there will be a course correction and return to personal service — for sure, there has been for me,” he said.
Elmore says that Lederman and Legacy “have me now as a customer for life.” He is already working with them on two future trips.