When Pam Hurley Moser ran into a friend and former client at a Chicago airport in April, the friend was shocked that Hurley Moser, president of Hurley Travel Experts on Cumberland Avenue, still operated a travel agency.
“I can’t believe you’re still in that business,” the friend said.
He’s not the only one surprised that some travel agencies have managed to survive. Over the last two decades, with the advent of book-it-yourself Internet sites such as Expedia, Travelocity and CheapTickets.com, most local travel agencies have closed up shop.
In 1996, Portland had 46 local, full-service agencies, according to an examination of old telephone books. Steve Hewins, president of Hewins Travel Consultants and AAA Northern New England, said in the 1980s, more than 70 travel agencies had local telephone numbers.
Now, however, the city is home to only a handful at most, depending on what might be considered a full-service agency.
For people who have grown up with the Internet and those do-it-yourself sites, the idea of a travel agent may seem archaic.
“We especially have a challenge with millennials and the sons and daughters of baby boomers,” Hewins said. “They either don’t know we exist, or they’re under the perception we cost more than doing it yourself.”
Neither, however, is necessarily true. And in terms of the few agencies that have survived, they appear to be doing just fine.
On that April day in Chicago, Hurley Moser further surprised her friend by telling him she’d just hired more than half a dozen new people, and profits were up 30 percent.
Hurley Moser said while the Internet has forced the surviving agencies to alter their business models, she sees it as an asset. Potential customers are now much more informed about the costs and destinations they’re interested in, which helps travel agents have higher closure rates and design better itineraries for their customers.
“In my opinion, the Internet is the best thing that’s ever happened,” she said.
The question travel agents most often hear nowadays: If people can book their flights and hotels online, what do they need a travel agent for? The answer, agents say, is “plenty.”
First, travel agents will save you money, and their service is usually free. When it comes to putting together a trip, tour or cruise for clients, travel agents get commissions from hotels, cruise lines and tour guides; they don’t get paid by their clients.
And because travel agencies often have leveraging power — for example, both Hewins and Hurley Moser have partnerships with BCD Travel, which does $15 billion in business each year — they can get hotels, tours and cruises much more cheaply than average individuals.
“If Hilton Garden Inns, for example, knows that BCD is going to send them $10 million in business every year, then they’ll go that little extra for clients associated with us,” Hurley Moser said.
That “little extra” doesn’t just include cheaper prices.
People using travel agents may also get room upgrades at no cost, $50 or $100 credits at hotels and on cruises and other goodies individual buyers usually don’t get.
A travel agency isn’t always free, though. If a travel agent has to book airline tickets, they often will charge $25 or $30. And for highly personalized itineraries and longer vacations — say, a one-month, six-city trip to Cambodia or Morocco — they may charge planning fees up to several hundred dollars.
People will still save money in the long run because the agents know where to get the best deals and have that buying-power leverage behind them, agents said.
Money isn’t the only advantage of using agents. Firsthand knowledge is important, said Evan McElligott, 33, owner of Longer Vacations at 110 Marginal Way.
McElligott, who’s originally from Ireland and returns home many times a year, specializes in trips to Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand and Vietnam.
Because he has lived and traveled extensively in those places, his knowledge of the hotels, restaurants, attractions and tour guides helps him design the best itinerary for each client.
He said while there is some value to sites, such as TripAdvisor, which rate hotels, restaurants and tourist sights, “those sites aren’t policed very rigorously,” and companies that advertise often get better ratings than they deserve.
The Hurley agency has one travel agent who has been on 30 separate African safaris.
“Specialization is key,” McElligott said, an Irish brogue seasoning his speech. “We’re consultants. You have to get to know your clients, spend time with them, figure out what they like, and then use your knowledge to make sure they have the best experience possible.”
Travel agents also provide peace of mind. McElligott provides his clients with cellphones so they can contact him if anything goes wrong.
And while Expedia and CheapTickets.com can help you book a car or flight, agents said, what happens when an Icelandic volcano grounds every plane in Europe?
The safety-net advantage is invaluable, clients said. Four years ago, Beth Leonetti and her husband planned a trip to Jamaica. The day of the trip, however, a blizzard led to the cancellation of their flight and many others.
Most people had to wait four or five hours on hold to speak to a customer-service representative, and some lost multiple days of their vacation, Leonetti said. But Leonetti’s travel agent at Hurley Travel Experts got them rebooked on a flight immediately, and Leonetti personally didn’t have to deal at all with the airlines.
“Who has time to wait four hours on the phone?” said Leonetti, who has used the Hurley agency to plan about 15 vacations. “There’s a peace of mind with a travel agent that the Internet can’t provide.”
Staff Writer Jason Singer can be reached at 791-6437 or: