Here’s why travel advisors continue to thrive: Travel Weekly

Frank Belzer is senior vice president of sales and partner relations at Margaritaville at Sea, a position he accepted in December. He has been a regular speaker and panelist at travel trade conferences.

Have you ever noticed how certain elements or components of society can persist and even thrive long after the world of technology has decided they are outdated or dead? Case in point: vinyl records. Other cases in point are retail shopping, printed documents and bookshops. The interesting question is why?

For almost two decades, I have heard a similar outcry from the talking heads regarding the end of travel advisors in the travel and tourism space. At first, the claim was generational, bold statement that only older people wanted to use a travel agent. We now know that this statement is untrue; the data indicates that many millennial consumers prefer working with a travel agent.

Then it was the rise of the OTA and the prediction that this would seal the doom of the humble travel advisor. Again, this is a false claim; OTAs have driven awareness that often leads consumers to travel agents because the OTAs have yet to figure out how to engage and connect authentically with most consumers. This challenge is a task they will continue to fail at as they continue filling their ranks with technophiles and accountants. And now, it is the specter of AI that dominates the conversation.

Also from Frank Belzer:
Artificial intelligence? Why not try ‘experiential intelligence’?

I prefer to turn to peer-reviewed consumer research as the most valid source of truth as to why these advisors continue, against the odds, to survive and thrive. When comparing why OTAs sometimes struggle compared to live travel advisors, research conducted in 2023 indicated one potential cause. It stated that OTAs still need “to reduce the negative effect of service failure on their customers.” (Kumar, A., & Shankar, A. “Why do consumers forgive online travel agencies? A multi-study approach.” Australasian Marketing Journal) Obviously, a service failure is not connected to the simple ability to book; instead, it is more likely linked to the feeling of service and a sense of having received good service. Numerous research papers conducted since 2020 have indicated that, more than ever, consumers are demanding a sense of authentic service and care; this is the travel advisor’s sweet spot.

We find more answers in research also conducted in 2023 by Carlisle (“The digital skills divide: Evidence from the European tourism industry,” Journal of Tourism Futures.) that implies what it identified as soft-touch skills (competence, reliability, empathy, communication and responsiveness) as the key advantage of the travel advisor. Only an interaction with a live advisor can provide this in any measurable form. While web analysts can debate the numerous possible causes why someone did not convert, the travel advisor knows exactly what held them back. The data from an agent channel is less murky and based on real-time feedback rather than interpretation. The advisor can respond at the moment and overcome fears and hesitancy; they can ensure the consumer feels confident enough to purchase.

Why agents continue to thrive

These two factors could explain why travel advisors have continued to thrive:
1) They give the consumer an authentic feeling of care and service.
2) They offer soft-touch skills that make consumers more confident with their choices.

This commentary is not arbitrary, either. Obviously, any provider still needs a digital strategy and direct channels. The point here is not to automatically listen to the voices and discount travel advisors’ value; they add an excellent facet to any distribution mix. At the same time, I am not saying that all travel advisors are equal. There are great ones, and then there are average and poor ones.

• Related: How Margaritaville at Sea is building relationships with travel agents

In my new role as an SVP of sales and partnerships at Margaritaville at Sea, I am tasked explicitly with growing all of the trade channels, which is a crucial company strategy and initiative. A big part of that involves working closely with the travel agent community.

As I have done in the past, I focus on the value that I know the top agents in this space can deliver: advocacy. I have found that when providers work and develop strategies supporting this type of focus, they work with the agent community. When aligned and working toward the same goals, we have synergy and success. We should stop managing travel advisors like we try to manage OTAs or giant tour operators. Going back to the beginning of this article, we may ask if the approach of the suppliers and destinations is outdated rather than the role of the modern travel advisor.