The OpenTable Has Turned

Online sites strive to compete with traditional agents By: Kenneth Shapiro
Kenneth Shapiro
Kenneth Shapiro

I saw a news report the other day discussing the recent purchase of the restaurant-booking site OpenTable by Priceline.com. Analysts felt that one of the benefits of the deal for Priceline is that it will now be privy to what customers are looking for in terms of dining while on vacation, and that could help the company deliver more than just air tickets and hotel bookings. One of the analysts said this information will help Priceline catch up to the service levels that travel agents provide.

How great is that comment? After years of being told that online travel sites were going to make travel agencies obsolete, one of the biggest players on the Web is now scrambling for ways to keep up with traditional agents.

The analyst went on to say that agents do so much more than just book travel — they are involved in every aspect of vacation planning — and that’s one of the services customers love.

Besides thinking to myself, “Yeah, no kidding,” this comment reminded me of a press release I saw a couple of months ago.

The National Association of Career Travel Agents (NACTA) reported that, according to its survey, nearly half (47.7%) of all travel agents actually prefer to be called Travel Consultants. The second most popular term was Travel Professional (23.9%) and finally Travel Agent came in third at (12.7%).

These results were consistent with an earlier survey conducted by ASTA that listed Travel Consultant (54%), Travel Professional (22%) and Travel Agent (11%) as the top three choices.

It seems clear that the term “consultant” is more in line with how the travel agent profession has changed. These days, agents consult with clients on all components of a vacation — a trusted professional who listens to what clients want on vacation and helps them make the right travel decisions. Consultant is also a term that doesn’t carry the baggage of the past; it speaks to the next generation of travelers who, according to demographic studies, appreciate the importance of expert advice and value personalized customer service. These are traits that online travel sites are notoriously bad at providing.

I can see why Priceline is investing now in order to compete. After all, how long before it is called obsolete?

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