So, is there still a place for the travel agent, sitting at a desk surrounded by shelves full of colourful brochures with photos of cruise ships and pyramids?

I am always intrigued by businesses that are thriving despite the threats from online competitors and new business models, so I made an appointment to see Bill Sheppard at World Travellers Best Travel.

I find that World Travellers is thriving. The agency won the Supreme Award at the 2013 Hastings Business Awards and was a Category Winner in the 2013 Hawke’s Bay Chamber of Commerce Awards. They recently hired three new staff from the recently-defunct Air New Zealand Holidays’ office, so it’s clear that this is not a company that’s clinging to an outdated business model.

Bill concedes that travel is not an easy business, and it’s much harder today than it was in the 1970s. Bill is realistic about the impact of the Internet on the business; he knows that people do their own travel research online, and customers will often come into the agency with their own travel itinerary already prepared.

But there can be problems with organising your own travel online. Review-based sites like Tripadvisor can be misleading. Unlike Trademe, where every trader is required to give feedback on every auction they participate in, only a small number of people actually write reviews on Tripadvisor (I don’t know anyone who has actually written one), so it pays to take the review scores with a degree of skepticism.

Worldwide, there are literally tens of thousands of travel websites, and an alarming proportion of these are dodgy. The most valuable service that a travel agent provides is to de-clutter the web, by collating the vast amount of information available and using it to weed out the fly-by-night operators. Bill gives me the example of a customer who booked their own $10,000 safari in South Africa only for the customer to find out that the company didn’t actually exist and there was no way of recovering the money. If they had arranged the holiday through an agency, then they would have been booked with a legitimate reputable tour operator.

And in a crisis, it’s great to have a human on the phone who can pull strings to get you out. Events like the 9/11 attacks and the 2010 eruption of Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull paralysed airlines and left tens of thousands of passengers stranded across the world. Travel agents can often arrange for their customers to be given up to the minute options to be booked on the first plane out with their last seat availability system.

Bill tells me that Best Travel started in 1976, and the agency was very low-tech in its infancy. The operation was so lean that there were not enough chairs to go round; legend has it that founder Garth Best would sit on an apple crate and save the chairs for his customers. The agency was a founding member of World Travellers, New Zealand’s only travel co-operative started six years ago by five New Zealand travel agencies; they now have 36 outlets throughout NZ.

These days travel is very competitive and, like most information-based industries, the technology is evolving at a rapid rate. And it’s not a cheap business to get into. In order to use the ticketing software that searches almost every airline in the world for available tickets, an agent must have an IATA/TAANZ licence, which requires a bank guarantee of at least $40,000. These factors make the modern travel agency a unique business, and for Bill the most important thing is experienced staff. The staff are trusted advisors, highly valued for their encyclopaedic first-hand knowledge of destinations, airlines, travel operators, local customs, and all the myriad issues that crop up when travelling in foreign countries.

The agency surveys their customers using Customer Monitor (www.customermonitor.com) to ensure their staff are providing the best service to their clients. It’s a cloud-based system that gathers feedback from customers, collates it, and presents insights. The benchmarking reports it provides allow Bill to see how the agency’s customer satisfaction score compares to other businesses, and it allows Bill to see satisfaction levels for each staff member.

World Travellers Best Travel’s marketing emphasises the travel agent’s role as a trusted expert rather than a dumping ground for cheap airfares. The agency’s website is not your usual flight-finder search website with ‘Hot Deals’, ‘Today Only’ and ‘Cheapest Flights’ plastered all over the homepage.

Most of Best’s advertising content is brand marketing rather than product marketing. Even though the agency is kept abreast of all latest deals continually, discount airfares are a difficult product to advertise, because the airlines change their prices so often, especially when there is a price war going on and the airlines undercut each other furiously.

To reach his customers, Bill uses a broad mix of online and traditional advertising. Newspaper and radio advertising is important for a travel agency because the over-50s tend to consume this media and they are a vital source of business. They tend to have more disposable income and more spare time than younger generations, so they are much more likely to spend money on travel. He used to send a monthly print newsletter but this has been replaced by a fortnightly email newsletter.

The agency is a big user of Facebook and Twitter, and it uses World Travellers’ management services office to manage the updates. Most of the content is topic-based, showcasing the expertise and specialist experience of the agents, rather than daily deals and other short-term promotional gimmicks.

Talking to Bill has confirmed that there is a great paradox at work in today’s world.

The Internet has put an unbelievable amount of information into the hands of the everyday person. But just because everyone can do their own research doesn’t mean that they will make great decisions. Experts are needed more than ever. Whether it’s recruitment, travel, financial advice, or wine buying, you need that expert to sift through the data, use their specialist experience to provide advice for your unique requirements, and pick up the pieces when things go wrong.

And when you’re travelling, they can go very wrong indeed.

Matt Miller co-owns web company Mogul Limited, based in Havelock North, but serving clients around the world, including BayBuzz. His beat for BayBuzz is online trends and best practice.

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