TRAVEL AGENTS SCRAMBLE AS CUSTOMERS GO ONLINE

AGENCIES FOCUS ON VALUE OF ADDED SERVICES By Chuck Schoffner
DES MOINES—For Christine Riccelli and Andy Ball, a vacation is never more than a mouse click away.
The Des Moines couple are among the growing number of U.S. travelers who book their trips on the Internet—a few clicks to get their airline seats, a few more to reserve their hotel room. In a matter of minutes, their arrangements are made—without an intermediary.
“Andy and I don’t even have a travel agent,” Riccelli said.
That’s not what travel agents want to hear, but it’s a reality they’re facing. With so many travel options now available on the Web and airlines paying smaller commissions, travel agencies must change to keep up or face the possibility of going out of business.
Some agents have lost the battle and closed. From 1996 through the end of last year, the number of travel agencies fell 4.5 percent, according to figures from the Airlines Reporting Corp., a ticket-distribution service for airlines.
But those in the travel industry insist there are many more successes than failures because agencies know how to adapt. “I think you’ll find we’re chameleons,” said Kathy Sudeikis of All About Travel in Mission, Kan., and secretary of the American Society of Travel Agents. “We’ve always adjusted.
“ASTA started as the American Association of Steamship Agents. So we have a legacy of moving and changing with the times.”
Although travel agents still handle most bookings, the Travel Industry Association of America estimates that $4.7 billion worth of travel will be booked online this year, and that figure is expected to jump to $8.9 billion in 2002.
Travel agents, according to ASTA, booked $130 billion worth of travel last year and still write 80 percent of all airline tickets and book 98 percent of all cruises.
To keep that business, travel agents are being challenged to offer more than what customers get on the Web.
ASTA is helping members move away from selling point-to-point airline tickets to selling entire vacation packages that include air, hotel and tours, saving clients time and, hopefully, money.
Agents are also finding creative ways to bring in revenue. Sudeikis’ agency can provide satellite phones to clients who are changing locations frequently so they can always be reached at one number. It also can provide a hand-held unit the agency can beep if it receives word of a last-minute flight change.
“Travel agents were the very first automated entity in business. We’ve been on the computer for 20 years,” Sudeikis said. “So it’s not a big stretch for us to go into the next generation.”
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