Ellison Poe said there isn’t a better time to be a travel agent, a statement that might not have seemed likely a decade ago.
Doom was predicted for the travel agency industry when airlines canceled commissions for sold tickets and the Internet made purchasing plane tickets and hotel reservations easier for the average citizen. Poe, who runs Poe Travel of Little Rock, said the industry has undergone some forced changes but is far from dying.
“We’ve never been as robust as we are right now,” Poe said. “It is booming. The misconception is that travel agents just issue plane tickets.”
Poe’s view is echoed by other travel agents in the state. Julie Mitchell of Design Travel in Rogers said her biggest obstacle is a lack of agents.
“We always say job security is very good,” Mitchell said. “We’re blessed with lots of business. We’re typically overwhelmed.”
Mike Wilkinson, owner of Sue Smith Vacations in North Little Rock, said the easy access of the Internet did upset the apple cart but things have settled. When Wilkinson bought Sue Smith Vacations 17 years ago, the company didn’t have access to the Internet. Now, he said, the Internet is indispensable for any business, especially the travel agency industry.
“It has changed a lot, some to the good and some to the bad,” Wilkinson said. “In the old days, [customers] would come in and say we don’t know where we want to go but this is what we want. The bad part is, it’s much easier to book online than it was 10 years ago. For us to do our research, communicate with clients and use booking engines, the Internet is obviously our best friend.”
‘All About Service’
Mitchell said it was “financially devastating” when airlines quit giving commissions for sold tickets in the early 2000s. Travel agencies survived, and some have thrived, because they, as Poe said, do more than sell airplane tickets.
“That was a big adjustment,” Poe said of the loss of commissions. “Change is always good, challenging but good. Honest to Pete, travel is all about service.”
For business travelers, service means quick adjustments when a flight is delayed or canceled. You might be able to book a flight online, but what happens when you’re at your gate with no plane but you have to get to a meeting in Chicago?
Poe and Mitchell said a travel agency, with its expertise and connections, can often rebook a passenger on an alternate flight in minutes, saving valuable time and frustration. That’s why some companies have returned to using agencies for their travel arrangements after experimenting with in-house departments.
Poe said approximately 35 percent of her business is corporate travel, while Mitchell said Design Travel is at 30 percent. Margaret Kemp, a principal at Poe Travel, said Poe’s fees are worth it for businesses.
Recently, Kemp said, she made flight, car rental and hotel arrangements for 15 employees from various cities across the nation to attend a business conference in another city. Much of Poe’s corporate business is arranging international travel, Kemp said.
“We see more and more companies look at us for management and control,” Kemp said. “Travel agents probably book 69 to 70 percent of all airline tickets. We can book a ticket in three to four minutes, which a novice can’t do online. We can navigate through all the BS.”
Mitchell said she had to reroute a client who was flying to Shanghai after winter weather delayed a flight in Dallas. Sure, a business executive could have his or her assistant book flights online, but that might not help when things go wrong once the trip starts.
“We can do that in less than five minutes,” Mitchell said. “When you’re booking online it can take an hour or an hour and a half. How much profit could they have earned for their business? When they get stuck, they call us. In the long run, they’re not saving money doing it themselves.”
Poe said she advises clients to go ahead and book flights themselves if they are merely flying from point A to point B. When you start adding connecting flights and hotels and other options, that’s when it gets complicated for the nonexpert.
“If you’re flying Little Rock to Dallas, it’s one thing. But if you’re flying from here to Paris to the Seychelles to Cape Town and back to Little Rock, there’s a lot of ways to skin the cat,” Poe said. “We look at all different ways to provide the air component. The big part of travel is creating the experience. We tailor-make trips from beginning to end.”
Arranging trips from beginning to end is also important in leisure travel, which makes up a majority of revenue for Design Travel and Poe. It is even more significant to agencies such as Sue Smith Vacations of North Little Rock and Destinations of Fayetteville, which are predominantly leisure-travel agencies.
Destinations, managed by Tracee Williams, began in 1998 as a department for Airways Freight’s business travel needs. Shortly thereafter, it converted to a standalone travel agency, and about 85 percent of its business is now leisure-related, including events such as destination weddings and honeymoons.
Williams was hired in 1999 to handle the transition from in-house department to travel agency. Destinations still handles corporate travel for Airways Freight and a few other companies.
“In 1999, it was time for an evolution because corporate travel at the time was starting to die,” Williams said. “We decided what we wanted to do, and honeymoons were underserved. That is where we decided to focus.
“Business is booming. It’s fantastic.”
A good analogy to travel agents is a wedding planner. If you want a simple, small wedding, doing it yourself probably wouldn’t be too taxing. But a big vacation or complex business trip, like a big wedding, is something worth paying an expert to handle.
Williams gets to perform both roles with destination weddings. She handles the flights and the hotel for the wedding party and guests but also works with the wedding planner at the site to make everything seamless.
The payoff? Destination weddings are often a third of the price of a traditional wedding — with much less stress on the bride and groom.
“It’s like telling a designer, ‘I want this fancy dress for this event, and this is what I want it to have, etc., etc., etc.,’” Williams said. “We take everything they tell us and design the perfect experience around what they want. We are creating an experience of a lifetime.
“People call us every day, frustrated. There’s no way they can figure it out. They want someone else to do it. This should not be stressful.”
Wilkinson said his agency’s business is approximately 95 percent leisure-related. He said travel agents, whether used for leisure or business travel, can help cut through the aggravation that can accompany travel.
The survival and continued profitability of travel agencies say that is something people are continuing to pay for.
“How much is your time worth?” Poe said. “I don’t do my own taxes; I go to my tax guy. I don’t know how to change the oil in my car so I go to my mechanic. I don’t do my own law.”