Who Needs a Travel Agent Anyway?

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Travelling can be easy these days with the world gone digital, from booking and online check-in, sometimes just a click away from physically visiting or calling travel agents and travel management companies (TMC) for seamless travel experience. Despite some scary stories from on-line travel agents (OTA) and traditional TMC’s, one cannot completely disregard the importance as both complement each other. Omolola Itayemi investigates

Years back, a lot of international travel and mostly local business travel to a large extent depended on travel agents and TMC’s who made reservations, purchased tickets and even helped book preferred or choice hotels for some discerning passengers. While such travel still depends largely on these agents, passengers are fast going down the do-it-yourself route; surfing the internet for cheap deals, embracing self-check-in, calling or going to airline sales offices to sort ticket issues out when the need arises. So where does this leave the traditional travel agencies whose livelihood solely depends on these functions passengers are choosing to do?   

In countries like India, Dubai or even London, you can’t buy tickets from direct offices of airlines except at the ticketing offices of these airlines at the airport or on-line, but not sales office in town leaving room for the travel agencies to sell. But that’s not the case here with airlines city sales offices littered all over the places except for some few like British Airways canvassing/proffering sales through the internet or their ticketing desks at the airport and their city office is strictly for administrative work. 

But travel agencies are not sitting pretty and waiting for mother luck to shine on them, aside some of the mega-agencies like Finchglow, HRG, Quantum and others who have over-time won big accounts and trust. A visit to the local and international airport, VFS (visa offices), most of the twentieth century malls and other choice locations will confirm this as scouts from travel agencies constantly barrage customers with different kinds of deals, from free hotel accommodations in three to five star lodges in exotic travel destinations to heavily discounted fares of tickets (sometimes even during peak or high seasons) if one patronizes their agencies for their travelling needs. For some of these scouts, accepting a business card or flier is all one needs to show interest but for others its runs deeper than a business card or flier. With apologies for taking your time and promising this exercise won’t take time, the scout proceeds to fill a mini-questionnaire form, asking questions from age, place of work, financial capacity to other demographics deemed important to them. A tiny part of the form with as generic number is given to you with a polite warning not to misplace it, just in case you are one of the chosen few winners. 

The methods of these agents in wooing passengers are too numerous to mention, thereby increasing their customer base with each passing day. But getting customers interest might be a lot easier than keeping them as some of these agents have come to find out.  

Ticketing agents at different airline desks all over the country are constantly faced with passengers who have been wrongly booked into travelling classes or given a reservation number of an unticketed reservation as a paid-for ticket and other travelling dilemmas. These situations are mild compared to passengers who have been sold promotional fares (usually cheaper but very restrictive in terms of date change and other penalties) as opposed to the normal flexible tickets which can be a huge albatross when flights are missed or flight time needs to be changed. Some of these tickets are so restrictive that one is better off buying a fresh ticket, not exactly a pleasant option for a passenger. The downside of this is that passengers are embracing the DIY (do-it-yourself) trend in favor of agents, going on the internet to obtain these tickets but even issues arise here too. While this is an added plus for airlines that get their flights sold out fast, agents lose-out in terms of commission. 

The registered agencies sometimes sell their LPO’s to unregistered IATA agents who use them for business. The downside of this is that if the passenger has issues with a ticket purchased by this LPO, which usually happen, the agency or TMC might not be able to help because you’re not on their database.

Mrs Lola Adewole, Vice President, South East, NANTA (Nigerian Association of Travel Agents) and CEO TIFA travels admits there are bad eggs in every profession and the travel industry is inclusive. ‘’My advise is always use an agent or TMC that is registered with IATA and be sure you’re dealing with a direct staff of that organization. They have more to lose and will be more professional. NANTA is a registered body that also deals with disciplinary actions, if you feel you have been shortchanged by a TMC or an agency, please feel free to contact us with the facts and we’ll sort it out. We at NANTA have launched our Identity Card Scheme; every practitioner that is a travel agency must have an ID card, including both employers and employees. So, when people (gather around) you and you take their numbers, we verify whether they are NANTA members. This is to enhance professionalism and reduce fraudulent operations in the industry,” she reiterated.

Gaining passengers trust, Adewole is of the belief that travel management companies and travel agencies hold a key role in travelling. ’I believe we play a key role that cannot be swept under the carpet. We are very important even with the advent of internet and self-booking, most of us are present on line with our OTA’s.  We advise on your itinerary and offer in depth advise from experience about penalties and restrictions on the kind of tickets you intend to buy which the internet cannot do. If you do have issues with your ticket, we can sort you out through our different systems linked to the airlines directly at any time of the day, even at night when the airline’s ticketing desks would have shut down for the day. We take you through all the facts and will advise accordingly. Also when you buy directly from the airline, chances are you might not be told about the restrictions on the tickets especially during their busy or peak periods but we do that. In terms of hotels and accommodations especially when travelling abroad, you need TMC’s or agencies to help with booking the kind of hotels you desire. Pictures lie and sometimes what you see on the internet might not necessarily be what you get. A travel agent would have a good knowledge of good hotels in that destination. You need the expertise of an expert to guide you through all these. I think in a lot of cases you still need their services, in addition to preventing costly errors, delays, and bummer hotels, a good agent will add surprises and a signature flair to a trip 

They’re also group and corporate travels, which can be very sensitive in terms of ticketing and accommodation; you cannot do that on the internet. We are the ones that can advise and work with that. We also manage your travelling budget. 

Some TMC’s are dealing with over 25 airlines, so we’re in the best position to advise. We go to the airlines on your behalf to get good deals because which is the tripartite agreement between the airlines, you and us.

Still noble profession/Some good ones still exist. 

With Wakanow.com, formerly Nigeria’s foremost OTA now in troubled waters and having its IATA license seized, some school of thought still believe traditional TMC’s make seamless travel happen and are the mainstay of the travel industry even with travel technology growing daily.

With over 6000 registered with NANTA, out of that we have a large number that are IATA registered travel agents are not as bad as their painted, we still have some reliable ones who have been in business for a long time, earning passengers trust and sometimes growing out of agencies to full-fledged airlines or airline representatives. Bell view airlines and Five-star agencies are some of such who grew from agencies to Bellview (now defunct) and South African airlines. 

According to Tosin of Travel Tribe, a TMC based in Lagos, Nigeria. “Yes there are bad seeds in any business, but the good ones far outweigh the bad ones. Yes we all need commissions to survive, but I would rather make my clients trip memorable and keep them than just collect the commission and act as an order taker. 

The trick is use an agent that is IATA certified, a certified agency must have its own IATA number and not using others (a common staple with travel agents). Insist on this by sighting their LPO. Avoid online agents without a concrete address, connected to you by little more than a web address and a phone line, may be hard to track down later, when and if there’s a problem.’ 

‘Most people have no idea of the value that a TMC can bring to the table. And, its wrong to go to your agent just when you are in trouble, which is what we usually have to deal with. It is much easier to deal with, if it was my file in the beginning rather than trying to step in and help when I am not recognized as the professional TMC on the booking.’

Meeting an agent face to face is still hard to beat when you have something complicated in mind…face-to-face is key. TMC’s also come in handy for long complicated trip to Asia or Australia for example, or for somewhere equally far-flung. The many time zones and linguistic and cultural differences you’ll be confronting can make booking such trips on your own too time-consuming to be practical. In addition to streamlining ambitious itinerary, it also makes geographic sense. As Adewole re-iterates, when traveling abroad to a new destination, having a travel agent who has actually been there is a huge plus. They can clue you in to decent restaurants and hotels, they would know what kind of documentation you would need to pass through customs, and give you the lowdown on attractions.   

Ultimately, it’s a matter of personal taste: Some people find it rewarding to plan their entire itinerary, others are pressed for personal time and need someone else to step in and take care of the details. In the end, using travel agents still comes tops especially with our lives getting busier but remember trust, intuition and experience is key when choosing one. 

I personally will opt for a TMC/Travel Agency who is duly registered and has an online presence too, its two for a price of one.