End of the road for travel agents?

Let me tell you about my love affair with Franz.
We met three autumns ago, right before I took a trip to Santorini, Greece, with my mother. Franz arranged everything, with not a trace of envy about my exotic vacation. When I returned and started making frequent visits to St. Louis to visit another man, Franz took care of the details each time, always advising me when there were bargains to be had.
THEN THERE was the last-minute winter vacation to Italy and many other little jaunts in between.
But even though Franz came to know the intimate details of my travel likes and dislikes, I found myself starting to stray. It probably started when he confessed that he was going to start charging me for booking tickets. I enjoyed our relationship and supporting his small travel agency business, but I wondered if I could justify the expense—though it was tiny—for the little trips I knew I could handle myself.
And as the airlines got with the program and got their operations digitized, it became even harder to justify the fees. If I knew I wanted to fly Continental, why not go direct to the source? In an effort to lure travelers, many airlines were even offering discounted tickets for Web buyers. And then there were the online travel agencies, which allowed me to, in essence, check a variety of flights and airlines, the way Franz had done for me before.
Who needed a middleman anymore? The Web was all about eliminating the mythic middleman in all sorts of businesses. Suddenly Franz, my trusty travel agent who knew all my secrets—a man I’d never even set eyes on, in fact—seemed like extra baggage I just didn’t need.
Are the nation’s 30,000 travel agents obsolete? Not yet, but like traveler’s checks in the age of universal ATMs and credit cards, they’re becoming less and less necessary.
How much of your summer vacation are you planning on the Web? Even if you have a Franz in your life, you’ve probably already discovered that the Internet is the world’s best travel guide, pointing you to information and places you’d never hear of from the corner agency.
Realizing that the Internet is the future, the major airlines have launched a new site called Orbitz. A joint venture of American, Continental, Delta, Northwest and United, Orbitz was created as a way for the majors to steal back some of the business they were losing to online agencies like Travelocity and Expedia. Only the threat of losing business to someone else could make these foes shake hands and join together, creating this $100 million venture.
When Orbitz launched last week, it suffered from technical problems and a lack of people to answer the phone—not to mention that the months preceding its official debut were also filled with controversy.
From the first mention of the service, competitors raised red flags that said, “Orbitz spells ‘unfair competition.’” The fear: that the parent companies of Orbitz, airlines themselves, might actually engage in price-fixing and edge out the competition. The Transportation Department gave the business the go-ahead and promised to keep a watchful eye on it for anything fishy, and the Justice Department is still looking into the venture.
Regardless, Orbitz seems about five years too late to the game and a dumb way to diffuse the airlines’ strong brands (remember how stupid an idea Time Warner’s Pathfinder was?). Orbitz has the potential to steal away market share from the very few online agencies who actually attract it on any wide scale, but only if they market like crazy, play fair and, perhaps most of all, stick with it for the long haul—something lots of Web commerce types don’t seem ready or aren’t in the position to do.
No one is making a fortune in this business right now. It turns out I’m a bit of a weirdo when it comes to booking my tickets online. Research by Forrester shows that only 6 percent of all people who surf online for airfares actually purchase them on the Web. They like looking the information up, but they don’t feel safe buying something like a plane ticket in cyberspace. Yet.
The online travel agencies know the value of human contact. “The No. 1 thing that builds loyalty is customer service,” said Terry Harrell, president of Travelocity. “We look at our biggest competitor as the telephone.”
Of course, as with all things on the Web, things are going to change as we middle-aged skeptics age out of the population and today’s kids grow into the flyers of tomorrow. They’ll have grown up with the indoctrination that the Web is the world’s greatest tool when it comes to finding information or purchasing just about anything. They’ll never have developed a relationship with a Franz, so they’ll never feel guilty about leaving him the way I do.