Travel agents, challenged by Internet, fight for customers and survival

| 21 Feb 2012 | 10:55

    SUSSEX COUNTY-It wasn't so long ago - less than a generation - that, if you wanted to take a trip, you went to a travel agent, who would arrange flights, hotels, rental cars, side trips, even restaurant reservations. Today, you're probably just as likely to turn to your computer, where a plethora of Web sites are available at the click of a mouse to offer price comparisons and reservations to nearly anywhere in the world. That may be good news for travelers, but it's bad news for travel agents, who find themselves battling for customers in an increasingly competitive market. "It's very difficult," said John L. Sullivan, the owner of Sullivan's Gaslight Inn and a travel agency on Route 23 in Franklin. "But we definitely have held on to a good majority of our older clientele. I think people have to go and test the market, and see for themselves." "Have I lost customers to the Internet?" Peggy Moran, owner of Accent Travel in Newton, asked rhetorically. "I would think so. (But) I find a lot of the older people come back because we've always given them service. And some are leery about getting on the Internet." But if the Internet has made life more difficult for many agents, Nick Lerescu, owner of Advantage Tours International in the Glenwood section of Vernon, says it has actually helped his business. Lerescu, who was educated as an economist in Romania, is a clock collector - an horologist - and organizes specialty tours for fellow enthusiasts as well as other special-interest groups, including collectors of music boxes. The Internet helps those people find him; type "horology tour" into Google and his site - - is the first one listed. "Overall, it helps me tremendously," explained Lerescu, who works from his home. "That's not to say if someone came to me and said, ‘Nick, I want to go on a cruise,' I wouldn't put him on a cruise. But it helps me tremendously because of the research involved." Because his clientele tends to be more educated, it also is more likely to do on-line research. Mass-market Internet travel services such as,, and aren't competition because they don't offer what he does, which is, according to his Web site, "one-of-a-kind experiences," that may include hands-on visits to private collections. Lerescu is closely affiliated with organizations such as the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors, as well as the American Clock and Watch Institute, which also helps his business. Not surprisingly, Lerescu arranges a lot of tours in European countries such as England, Germany and Switzerland, along with other faraway places such as Egypt, Greece, China, Japan and Russia. "My philosophy in selling travel is to go to an association you're interested in, become a member and put a group together, and they'll give you instant credibility," he said. Agents such as Sullivan and Moran, who cater to a more general clientele, are more likely to be squeezed by the Internet. Suzanne Sullivan, who runs Sullivan's travel service, feels that those most likely to use the Internet to arrange a vacation are those who feel they can save money. But, industry professionals say, that's not always the case, particularly on package tours. She also says that travel agents offer services that on-line operations can't. "When the client buys a ticket online, and he has an issue with that ticket down the line, he can't change it," she said. "He would, I guess, take that ticket to the airline, whereas a travel agent will try to help you the best they can." Some people planning tours will come to an agency to get general information, said Moran, then go on-line to buy the tickets, leaving the agent in the cold. The Internet will continue to erode traditional agencies' customer base, predicts the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In a 2002 analysis of the future of careers as travel agents, the bureau projected that, "employment of travel agents is expected to decline through 2012. . .An increasing reliance on the Internet to book travel, as well as industry consolidation, will continue to reduce the need for travel agents. "The Internet increasingly allows people to access travel information from their personal computers," the report continued, "enabling them to research and plan their own trips, make their own reservations and travel arrangements, and purchase their own tickets." The most recent statistics published by show that nearly 202 million Americans - 69 percent of the population - had Internet access as of last October. That was more than double the number with access five years earlier. Of those with access, according to, approximately 110 million actually used the Internet from their homes during the week ending Jan. 3. More than 50 million Americans use the Internet at work every week, according to Nielson. Those numbers will only grow, as will the number of users with high-speed, broadband connections that make on-line reservations nearly instaneous. That doesn't mean that local travel agents are facing extinction. Older customers still go to local agents, as do those going on group tours and people who don't want to be bothered with dealing with the Internet. "Many consumers still prefer to use a professional travel agent to ensure reliability to save time, and, in some cases, to save money," the bureau of labor statistics reported. Sullivan says that when it comes to booking family-packaged tours such as excursions to Disneyworld, it's better to go to an agency, "and the same thing with a cruise." "As the market goes on, the price will go up," Sullivan explained. Most of these websites do charge fees. And in some cases, the travel agent can beat the prices they've got. "It's a very unsettled period of time," Sullivan concluded. "(But) I truly believe the travel agent will be around for a long period of time." "Oh, positively," Moran agreed. "Because we give service and that's something you can't get on the Internet."