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Travel agencies relevant in digital world by maintaining the human touch

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The summer travel season is starting to pick up. And while the Internet seems to be in the business of helping travelers plan their next dream vacations, local travel agencies said their expertise still is a viable and needed option.

Holly Kelly, travel consultant at Cedar Valley World Travel in Cedar Rapids, has been in the business for several decades and has seen plenty of changes within the industry. Today, she said she always chuckles when she hears people say that instead of working with a travel agent they booked on Expedia or a similar travel website.

“Those sites are a travel agency, but they aren’t providing customer service,” she explained, noting that they are simply based online.

“Our clients come to us for our expertise and because they want someone to be there should something go wrong,” Kelly said, noting that Cedar Valley World Travel has been in operation for 75 years. “If you haven’t experienced a problem while traveling then you aren’t as apt to understanding the value in that.”

Local travel agents also are quick to point out that travel planning shouldn’t be all about anticipating the worst.

“As the travel agent, I help arrange all elements of the trip and calculate pricing to get the best deals,” Kelly said. “I make sure all the documentation is in order and that all the groundwork is done to make it a smooth trip.”

Even with the explosion of travel websites, blogs and apps, local travel agents said the Internet has not been all bad in terms of hurting travel agencies.

“The travel industry has actually been on the Internet for much longer than the general consumer, probably 30 years,” Kelly said. “It can be a wonderful thing to see more pictures and information online when booking travel.”

Kelly noted that she’s used Google Maps in the past to help her determine wheelchair accessibility on tours she was planning.

At the heart of the travel agency model is customer service.

“We know which tour operators will come through for you, and that is not always information you can get online,” Kelly said. “Some of the stuff you read online is from someone who has been there one time. We are experienced travel agents who know these destinations.”

“You can’t just rely on what you see online,” added Lisa Gilliatt, president of Destinations Unlimited in Cedar Rapids. “We actually send our agents to all corners of the world so that they are very well-traveled and know what they are selling.”

At Destinations Unlimited agents are asked to specialize in a particular destination.

Destination weddings, for example, are becoming a popular trend and require special considerations.

“So we sent our travel agents to these destinations to meet with the wedding coordinators and get to know the properties and what they offer our customers,” Gilliatt said.

Destinations Unlimited, which has been in business since 1984 and employs 22 people, operates in three divisions — leisure, corporate and group tours. Gilliatt noted that the transactions are completely different for each of their divisions.

“When we are booking corporate travel, we are looking for the most cost-effective way to get someone from here to there.

“We know the ins and outs of the travel industry and are looking to streamline the travel process for our clients.”

Destinations Unlimited also plans about 10 to 15 group tours per year, based on customer suggestions and requests and their own knowledge of popular destinations.

Cedar Valley World Travel plans owns a fleet of motor coaches for group tours.

“We also own our own fleet of motor coaches,” Kelly said, noting that she enjoys going on these trips, say, to Branson or Mackinaw Island.

“For our group travel, we are with our travelers from point A to point B. For some it’s an added level of comfort to have us there to make sure everything goes smoothly.”

The cost of using a travel agent is a common misconception in a world where travelers are often looking for great travel deals.

“We get the exact same prices you do online,” Kelly said of airline tickets, noting that travel agencies are not turning a large profit, if any at all, on booking airfare for travelers.

“We charge a $10 per person booking management fee,” Gilliatt explained, noting that other compensations to the travel agency come through the hotels and tour companies. “But we want to stress that this is not just about the transaction. It’s about the service we provide before during and after your travel.

“It’s a minimal investment to ensure a perfect well-earned vacation.”

Changes within the airline industry have affected the work of travel agents in recent years as well.

“There were more checks and balances with the airlines years ago,” Kelly noted.

“They really had to provide good customer service because they answered to the travel agents. Now that business is so spread out and people aren’t always going directly through the airlines, they are less accountable for their actions and there seems to be a lack of customer services within the airlines.”

Kelly noted this can be particularly tough for small travel agencies when booking group travel, should any pricing errors be made when pricing airfare tickets. Kelly explained that the travel agency has financial accountability to the airline for all tickets purchased and any price adjustments.

“We don’t own the airline, of course, so there’s nothing we can do about it,” she said.



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