We Visited A Travel Agency To See How They’re Still In Business

Like cockroaches, travel agents can survive anything.

We Visited A Travel Agency To See How They’re Still In Business

Ilana Gordon

Like cockroaches, travel agents can survive anything.

Before I met Angel Anger, I thought I knew the kind of people who used travel agents. I figured they were all old, rich and totally technophobic. And I thought travel agents themselves were being slowly killed off by sites like Kayak, Airbnb and TripAdvisor.

But Angel — a travel agent in Chicago who has over 20 years experience in the industry — showed me I was wrong. In true Darwinian fashion, the travel business didn’t die: it adapted.

Before 9/11, things were pretty good

If you ask Jorge Sanchez, 9/11 was the tipping point for the travel industry. Jorge, who’s Executive Vice President of Mena Tours & Travel, the Chicago travel agency where Angel works, was as an accountant before marrying into the business in 1985.

Mena Tours & Travel in Chicago. | Ilana Gordon/Dose

Before the attack on the Twin Towers, travel agents had a pretty good gig: they’d hawk plane tickets, receiving a 10% commission fee from airlines. The travel benefits were bountiful and the barriers to entry were low. All you needed to get started was a handful of travel brochures and a working phone line.

Angel Anger. | Ilana Gordon/Dose

In the early aughts, the internet was slowly gaining momentum, but most travel entrepreneurs hadn’t quite figured out how to monetize it. When the towers fell, the entire landscape shifted. Airlines were hit hardest, losing $74 billion from 2001-2010. To stay alive, airlines stopped paying commissions, forcing travel agents to pass service fees along to their customers. Online travel booking sites, some of which were founded pre-9/11, became increasingly popular, launching a movement of DIY travelers. In 2000, there were 124,000 full-time travel agent positions — by 2012, that number was almost halved, leaving only 64,000 jobs remaining.

Travel agents strike back

9/11 had the potential to shutter every door of every travel agency but somehow, the strong survived. It wasn’t easy. Agents did everything they could to remain relevant, with some cutting back employee hours or incentivizing clients with more lenient cancellation policies. Others, like Mena, recognized that the key to outlasting the crisis was to become highly specialized.

Inside Mena Tours & Travel. | Ilana Gordon/Dose

These days, Mena focuses on packaging leisure vacation products. The agency employs a full-time staff of ten, all of whom are bilingual. In addition to booking vacations for clients, the agency also offers specific on-site services, including private Spanish-speaking tours of the city of Chicago. Angel, or one of his co-workers, will pick up a group of travelers (often visiting from Argentina or Spain) and escort them around the city for a three-hour guided tour before returning them to their hotel. The agency also supplements their revenue streams through business driven from corporate clients located in Chicago and the surrounding areas.

Why you NEED a travel agent sometimes

Angel, who works at Mena Tours & Travel in Chicago, tells me that travel agents “have to have a niche to survive.” Angel’s own niche is his destination knowledge — his personal experiences traveling to over 50 countries make him a veritable fountain of information. Over the course of our conversation, he shares his picks for the most underrated destinations (Croatia, a beautiful and cheaper alternative to the Greek Isles) and most overrated (Brussels — skip it, and instead visit Bruges, which is only an hour away by train).

Travel advertising, the old way. | Ilana Gordon/Dose

Angel understands why people book vacations online, especially domestic trips that only require a flight and hotel. His bread and butter are the itineraries with lots of moving parts. Some of his clients are older and prefer to use him as an alternative to the internet, but more seek him out after they get overwhelmed trying to parse all the information that’s available.

Bad reviews are of particular concern for would-be travelers. Users who have bad experiences are more likely to review a business than people who have positive ones, Angel says. Travelers who use agents do so with the understanding that those agents have the relationships and experience necessary to deliver a good time, free of hassle.

A storefront agency in the UK. | bnet.com

And when travelers shell out money for agents, they’re also paying for peace of mind. Mena’s agents are easily reachable by phone and email, which makes them invaluable in moments of crisis. Recently, Angel assisted a honeymooner whose bag containing her prescription pills got lost en route to Greece during a layover in Canada. By coupling their travel insights and experience with the same tools e-commerce sites use, agents manage to distinguish themselves — and keep the industry afloat.

Millennials have a secret

Samantha Ruiz loves a good trip, but it wasn’t until she studied abroad in college that she realized how accessible travel can be. Now that she’s 26, she’s taking what she calls “a more YOLO approach” to adventuring. Samantha, who freelances in media while simultaneously growing her new business, estimates that in the past year, she took over 15 trips, including excursions to Bali, the Philippines and Dubai. She prefers to book her vacations online, citing flexibility and her own tendency to plan travel at the last minute. She’s never used an agent before, but would consider using one in the future, specifically for more complicated trips (like the one she almost took to Cuba).

Samantha Ruiz/Dose

People often dismiss millennials as misanthropic DIYers who use the internet for everything, but this judgment is often false: the (admittedly biased) American Society of Travel Agents found that millennials are more likely to use travel agents than any other demographic. Almost half of those polled said they would also recommend an agent to family members and friends. This is great news for agents, most of whom acquire clients chiefly through word of mouth.

So, what does the future hold for travel agents? According to the US Department of Labor, nothing good. As of 2014, there were over 74,000 travel agent jobs within the United States — by 2024, that number is expected to decline by 12%. Only this time, agents may have a trump card — millennials. As the demographic ages and finds career success and financial stability, they’ll have more disposable income to spend on travel. As long as agents are able to retain them as clients, millennials may provide the job security the travel industry so desperately needs.

When that happens, travel agents will be ready. As Jorge Sanchez says, travel agents are “not a dying breed. [The industry] changed and those that are still around do a much better job than 10 or 20 years ago.”