Rapid growth in technology has brought about major changes and even disruptions to every sector and industry in the last few decades. The travel industry was one of the earliest adopters, though it hasn’t had many disruptions as most other sectors. For airlines, hotels, and other suppliers, enhancements in technology have helped them open new ways to connect with their customers and sell their services. For distributors and aggregators, this has helped them better showcase their capabilities to compare product and service offerings from various suppliers. And for corporate travelers, this meant Online Booking Tools (OBTs) offering instant search and booking. Sounds great. But are you really getting the best?
Travel Industry is a large and complex one, with a growing number of vendors, distributors, and agencies, and with a multitude of factors driving it. This diversity has always been part of what has kept the industry growing at an amazing pace. Until the pandemic of course, but that’s a topic for another day. The recent push by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) to promote their New Distribution Capability (NDC) and the One Order, is an example of how much various sectors are interdependent. While the NDC initially started out as a slayer of Global Distribution Systems (GDSs), much changed along the way. Today the major GDSs have taken the lead in advancing the larger One Order cause.
For the business travelers and their companies though, as end-users, what matters is what gives them the best return for their investment in travel. Which includes the ability to access and choose from a range of services that best suit their budgets, safety standards, and other business demands. Let’s examine the strengths and weaknesses of the two channels that businesses use to procure travel services, and see how they compare – from booking through to after-sales.
OBTs provide an amazing experience when it comes to searching. You simply logon to a web portal or open an app, type away the details and get the results instantly – usually well-formatted and beautifully arranged in an easy to interact interface. Although technology has provided new channels like video calls and IM chats, instead of having to go visit an agency, they still lack the snappiness of an OBT.
Although OBTs can give you instant results, most are severely limited when it comes to having a good inventory. Apart from the major GDSs, Travel Agents are today supported by a growing number of B2B aggregators and distributors, giving them access to a wider range of suppliers, products, and offers. They also have access to suppliers directly, especially those with limited technological connectivity such as serviced apartments, very often these come with exclusive deals.
Planning your business trips and even some leisure activities on the side are easy with Travel Agents. Their advice comes from their experience of working with different people and scenarios with their travel needs. Visa regulations, vaccine or test requirements, forex info, city or airport details, activities at the place… whatever you need, just ask your agent. This is simply something that the OBTs simply cannot deliver. I should mention though that there is a great deal of work going on in terms of AI and machine learning to get to that – but that’s gonna take some time.
OBTs are great when it comes to simple one-way or return trips, and hotel bookings for a few passengers. But when it comes to complex itineraries with open-jaws or side-trips involved, you need the expertise of an experienced consultant. When it comes to group travel and travel for conferences or special events, travel agents are better at getting you the best deals and special fares. Their experience and network can help get accommodations at the right locations as well as arrange ground transports and other special services.
Agents are pretty flexible when it comes to the booking experience. In the case of flights, for example, agents can hold multiple bookings where possible and get you time to decide which one to confirm and ticket. This especially helps when seats are running full on specific cabins or fare types. OBTs on the other hand require you to confirm bookings immediately in most cases. Even in the case of more modern ones that support approval flows, they are only equipped to hold one booking until it’s approved or rejected.
Changes and Refunds
OBTs still lack the ability to change or cancel tickets automatically when it comes to most services. The queries to refund or reissue tickets are mostly redirect to their support teams or call centers. These are again travel consultants who process the requests either based on your requirements submitted online or your call. While the process is similar when it comes to the Travel Agent, the experience is quite different. You are not speaking to a random (often less experienced) support agent, rather it’s the same travel consultant or team who made the booking and understands your needs.
The Human Touch
Beyond just getting your trip perfectly planned and done, there is a human touch that you get while doing business with Travel Agents. It’s hard to deny that the customer service experience a Travel Agent provides leads to much happier travelers. Studies show that travelers who use Agents have an overall better trip experience. Whether for a change of dates or cancellation, if you’ve ever called an OBT’s support number, you know you won’t have a good chance of ending the call feeling better.
The savings that OBTs promise are generally marginal, and oftentimes Travel Agents can deliver the same or better deals. In both cases, they do business with the same airlines, hotels, and other suppliers. If your organization has contracted Travel Agent, then their service charges for various services are already fixed. Most of them charge a transaction fee per service. The experience is similar when it comes to OBTs as well, their service fees are usually shown while confirming your bookings.
If however, you’re consulting a new Travel Agent, be sure you ask about their service charges. Considering all the flexibility and consultation you receive, the service charges that come with using a travel agent are well justified. And you can rest assured they will find you the very best deal to meet your needs.
So what’s better than a Travel Agent when it comes to planning your next trip? Two, maybe?