Teresa Chope taps at her laptop in the fifth-floor conference room of a hip coworking space overlooking Newbury Street that’s all blond wood and chrome, exposed brick and ductwork, contemporary furniture and the obligatory coffee bar.
Chope comes to this office two days a week in her role as CEO of Boost Journeys, meeting with her team of destination experts as they craft customized “inspiration projects” that read like executive summaries of vacation choices tailored to well-heeled clients. Her global concierge stands by to help travelers who have already embarked on such experiences as a group excursion to Greece by private yacht.
This is the new incarnation of what used to be called a travel agent, though Chope prefers “travel designer,” and others go by “travel adviser,” “travel curator,” or “travel consultant.”
It’s a profession people may think had succumbed to the onslaught of airline and hotel websites and online booking services such as Expedia and Priceline. That perception has been only bolstered by the disappearance of the once-ubiquitous storefront travel agency, filled with racks of glossy brochures and the cacophony of ringing phones.
In fact, the travel agent is alive and well, with collective gross bookings of just under $113 billion in 2017, the most recent year for which the figure is available, according to a survey prepared for the American Society of Travel Advisors (yes, changed last year from “agents”) by the travel industry research company Phocuswright. That number is projected to rise to $127 billion by 2021.
“We used to just walk down the street and be reminded of travel agents sitting there behind their windows and with all their special offers,” said Claudia Unger, a research analyst at Phocuswright. “Because we don’t see them, we just assume they’re gone. But most of them have moved into the online space or become independent contractors.”
Even Phocuswright predicted, in 2006, that travel agents would become extinct. Instead, more than half now work out of their homes or have affiliated with “host” agencies such as Travel Experts, Andavo, Cadence, and, as in Chope’s case, Virtuoso. Sixty-three percent said business is up. Eighty-three percent are positive about the future.
It will be very different from the past. Surviving in the industry has required adapting to massive changes. While travel agents still control 30 percent of travel sales, for example, all of those online booking services have sucked up 18 percent of the market, and growing. Trying to steer more reservations to their own websites, many airlines have stopped paying commissions on reservations for flights. (Airlines still pay commissions on vacation packages.) Nearly half of travel agents now charge service fees.
“Without question, all of those challenges are real, and many traditional travel agents have gone away,” said Terrie Hansen, Virtuoso’s senior vice president for marketing. The number of travel agents nationally is down from about 91,000 in 2006 to 69,480 today, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But the vast expansion of the online travel universe has had another, unexpected consequence: The intimidating number of choices is beginning to channel people back to human experts, helping to reverse that slide.
“What you find is that the Internet has gotten so overwhelming,” said Diane Mullahy, owner of Travel Leaders of Framingham. Added Hansen: “There has been just this onslaught of information and the travel agents who stayed in business have moved to being almost life experience advisers.”
Eighty-four percent of consumers said they use travel agents to take the hassle out of booking travel, a survey by the market research firm MMGY Travel Intelligence found, and 85 percent said they have someone to help if things go wrong.
Many agents liken themselves today to financial advisers or personal trainers. It’s a definition especially appealing to millennials, about a quarter of whom said they plan to use an agent for at least one vacation in the next two years, MMGY reports. That’s an even higher proportion than for baby boomers who grew up at a time when travel agents still were omnipresent.
A lot of those older travelers are coming back now, too, said Glenn Bornstein, second-generation president and co-owner of Cleveland Circle Travel, a Brookline mainstay established in 1960 that closed its storefront on Beacon Street in 2016 and moved to offices in Needham.
“What I get a lot is people that have gone away for a few years,” Bornstein said. “They were clients and they go away and come back because they just don’t want to deal with it anymore.”
If busy travelers don’t have time to surf the glut of booking and advice sites online, they certainly don’t have vacation time to waste. That’s how Chope got into the business four years ago: She booked her own itinerary for a precious and expensive week abroad with her family and was disappointed. “Nothing was customized for us,” she said. “That was a really formative experience, because I wasn’t going to get that spring break back.” Now, as an adviser, she sees her job as helping customers avoid the same fate because “it’s the most precious time they have.”
Ask Steve Alperin. A retired money manager who lives in Wayland, he’s been a loyal Cleveland Circle Travel client since his four kids were young.
“We try to take a trip a year and we just want it done right, and having a point person saves me a ton of time because of the expertise and service that they bring.”
Alperin also has discovered perks from booking with a travel agent that he wouldn’t have gotten from Expedia, such as hotel upgrades, spa discounts, and free breakfasts. That’s because travel agents have relationships with providers, who want them to keep sending guests. It often offsets the service fees some travel agents have begun to charge.
“We offer you so many more choices than you think you can get,” Mullahy said. And if you’re looking online for a suite at a resort in the Caribbean at Christmas, Hansen said, “good luck. But they’re going to hold a few of those back for the customers of the advisers that bring them repeat business.”
Travel advisers also increasingly specialize in categories such as group tours or cruises; they now account for two-thirds of cruise sales and 68 percent of tour bookings. They can also organize the complications of increasingly popular multigenerational vacations, in which grandparents travel with their children and their children’s children — often from points of origin all over the map. And they feed travelers’ growing appetite for the new and different.
“Our clients are already travel connoisseurs,” said Chope. They’re looking for the undiscovered. What my clients look for are the things that are un-Google-able.”
Yet many consumers still are surprised to know that travel agents still exist, these experts said. “It’s like we died,” Mullahy joked. Chope, who used to work in biotech, said her friends “try to work around the term ‘travel agent’” in the way people stopped using the words “flight attendant.” “They assume it’s an outdated term.”
Bornstein runs into that too, he said. At dinner parties, he said, people ask him what he does. Their response: “Travel agent? With a question mark.”
Jon Marcus can be reached at email@example.com.