Business soaring for old-school travel companies
Baby boomers fueling increase in bookings
The Internet didn’t kill off the travel agent after all.
Classic travel companies were supposed to be dead and buried as online sites such as Expedia and TripAdvisor let travelers make their own, often cheaper, arrangements.
But full-service agencies are booking more trips, catering to travelers willing to pay an expert to develop smart itineraries.
Flights booked by traditional travel agencies increased 11 percent over the past four years, according to the Airlines Reporting Corp. Boston expansion is underway for several travel companies.
Indeed, David and Carol Greenfield usually plan their vacations on the Internet. But when the Newton couple chose Japan for their vacation in December, they realized they needed more than a mouse to fully experience a foreign culture and overcome the language barrier.
They reached out to Audley Travel, a British company that specializes in customized trips. Audley opened its first US office on North Washington Street in Boston in March. “It was unbelievable how knowledgeable they were and how precisely they laid out this plan,” said David Greenfield, 67.
Traditional travel services can vary from basic group trips with predetermined itineraries to vacations in which seemingly every minute detail is seen to, down to providing pictures of signs found in foreign subways. Many travel agents and tour guides have arrangements with the hotels, guides, and companies used in their trips and can vouch for the experience — or answer for any problems. (These companies typically receive a commission from the operators their clients use.)
Growth in the travel agency business is driven mostly by baby boomers, such as the Greenfields, looking for a more immersive experience from their vacations and able to pay for it. A two-week Audley trip to Japan during the off-season starts at about $3,000 per person, without airfare, but includes some hotel stays and meals, guided services, local transportation, and other services.
A more elaborate monthlong trip may include multiple excursions and meals, luxury hotel accommodations, and an overnight stay with monks at a monastery on the majestic Mount Koya, the birthplace of the Shingon Buddhist sect more than 1,200 years ago, for about $18,000 a person.
The steady business has not only prompted several travel companies to expand their offices in Boston, but also to offer more destinations.
Grand Circle Travel Corp., which offers group tours targeting consumers in their 50s and older, has added more than 70 employees in Boston since 2012. The company reports a sharp increase in baby boomers participating in small group travel excursions offered by its Overseas Adventure Travel unit.
In 2013, the adventure unit served 40,270 travelers; this year Grand Circle expects 49,000 customers and has added nine trips to its offerings — including Sicily, Indonesia, and Brazil. In the last decade, business at Overseas Adventure Travel has jumped 67 percent.
Priscilla O’Reilly, a spokeswoman for Grand Circle, said trips that offer opportunities for cultural immersion are particularly popular.
In India, for example, travelers stay in tent-roof cottages, ride camels and elephants, and visit a village, local school, and a women’s cooperative during a 16-day trip, starting at $2,395 without airfare. A 13-day trip to Costa Rica can include visits to a farming cooperative or dinner with families in rural, out-of-the way communities, and start at $1,895. Some of the excursions are exclusive to the company and not available to outside travelers.
“This US population growth of boomers is really impacting the industry because you have this whole group of people that have the time and money to travel, which they didn’t when they were raising kids,” O’Reilly said.
Joseph and Diane Zinck of Dorchester have taken three trips with Overseas Adventure Travel, to Southeast Asia, the Amazon, and Morocco since they retired a few years ago.
“When we went to Vietnam and Cambodia, one day you’d be riding camels, the next day you’d be in rickshaws or on boats or barges,” said Joseph Zinck, a 67-year-old former Boston police officer. “It’s really a cultural experience.”
Zinck said he considers the cost of the trips he has taken — $8,000 to $10,000 per couple — worthwhile because it includes all expenses, from meals to lodging and airport transfers.
Earlier this year, Liberty Travel of New Jersey opened a 10,000 square-foot flagship location in Downtown Crossing. The store marks the eighth location in Boston, the agency’s third-best grossing market in the United States.
Clients typically visit as many as 20 websites before reaching out to make a purchase through the agency, said Karen Kent, vice president of marketing for Flight Centre USA, the parent company of Liberty Travel.
“The relevancy of the travel consultants is definitely increasing,” Kent said. “People want to come to us for validation and for the expertise and the security.”
Audley Travel, the British company that just expanded to Boston, connects travelers with in-house specialists who have traveled extensively or lived in the destination country and tailor trips to customer preferences. Vacations cost $3,000 to $50,000 per person.
Audley managing director Jacqui Lewis said the company decided to open a US office because it was seeing more American travelers visiting its website. She said Americans are become more discerning about how they travel. In a post-recession era, many people who have the money to travel want to experience something unique, she said. “The beauty of tailor-made is that you set your own departure date and pace at which you’re traveling, considering your own likes and dislikes and all of those things are important to you,” Lewis said.
The Greenfields said the trip Audley planned for them in Japan was not inexpensive, but they thought the value of the experience was worth the expense. The couple thought that as Americans they needed to visit the site of the atomic bombing in Hiroshima, and the company connected them with a guide whose father was sent to the area to help survivors after the attack. David Greenfield, 67, described the experience as “very difficult to imagine or duplicate.”
They aspire to visit New Zealand and South America and said they plan to use Audley again.
“We had no idea this was such a great option,” said Carol Greenfield, 65. “But we’re sold.”