Travel agencies here to stay

Adel Zaki

President, WATA

In 1949 WATA (The World Association of Travel Agencies) was founded in Geneva, Switzerland. Why? Simple answer: the traveller needed a network of efficient, independent travel agencies around the world in order to guarantee the level and quality of services and reliability, especially after the Second World War when the infrastructure was destroyed in many parts of world. This necessitated the existence of a network of really professional and financially sound travel agencies.

Almost 50 years ago the world needed the independent travel agencies; 50 years from now the world will still need the 'improved' independent travel agency.

Why do I say the 'improved' independent travel agency? Because the 'improved' travel agency must learn and adapt to the very fast changes taking place in our industry, to face all the new market's complicated challenges, such as: globalisation, mass travel, socio-economies, privatisation, human behaviour, niche activities and markets, the environment and its implications, mega travel agencies and tour operators, takeovers, deregulations, free markets.

In the midst of all these changes, I strongly believe that the independent travel agency has a bright future, a place in the sun well into the 21st century, simply because 'travel' is human. You are dealing with a human being, in a situation where human contact is the ultimate experience and of utmost necessity.

The independent travel agent who has found his niche market will always be consulted, asked his opinion concerning a country, destination, a hotel, an airline, etc. He is the expert. People travelling abroad need to be reassured; they need the travel agent's expertise. They have dozens of questions a computer cannot answer; they need the eye contact, the smile, the handshake. Psychologically a human being cannot live without all these feelings and emotions. I see technology and telecommunications as a plus, an aid to the travel agency.

Fifty years ago the number of people/tourists moving around the world was just a few million. In 1995 570 million tourists travelled the world just for tourism. Can those numbers be handled manually? Of course not. Today in a remote travel agency almost anywhere in the world one can view on screen a destination's hotel, a room, the sport or leisure activities available, and much more information which will facilitate the client's decision and make it easier for the travel agency to sell 'a destination'. Some independent 'travellers' might and will reserve directly with different suppliers of services, but I believe this is a minority. The majority will still use the travel agency because of cultural differences - a UK citizen may feel comfortable going to Paris, but ask him to organise a vacation to the Middle East or Asia for himself and I doubt very much that he will do it without consulting a travel agency, because he needs to ask questions; he needs to talk to someone who has already been there. In other words, he needs to communicate.

Another major reason why travellers will need the travel agency is the dramatic socio-economic changes taking place in the Western world. That is, fewer working hours equals more time for leisure and travel. Accordingly new travel patterns will develop, younger people will travel more and, of course, those less experienced in travel and for these the Internet - or a similar or better system in the near future - can provide them with some valuable data, but cannot make them share the travel agent's experience accumulated over the years.

In WATA around seven or eight years ago many members were really worried about their future, not to mention their very existence, when Europe saw the birth of mega travel agencies/tour operators. They believed that the independent travel agency days were numbered because the 'megas' would offer their clients the whole range of services, eliminating the need for independents. Again, at that time my opinion was, yes, there was a risk, but it all depended on the travel agent's reaction and how he adjusted to change.

This approach helped travel agencies to diversify, to specialise in the relatively new forms of travel, such as incentives, conferences, seminars, special interests, cruises, etc.

For a couple of years now the mood at WATA has been towards specialisation because time and experience have proved that the independent travel agency is here to stay, provided it knows how to adjust, to face and accept the technology making it 'a friend and a useful tool'.

Lately in the USA in order to save money and reduce their operational costs, some major airlines decided to deprive the travel agencies of the commission they get on any sale of tickets, offering them a net rate instead. It was then up to each travel agency to decide a commission (which the client could refuse), a service charge or a handling fee (different names). Again travel agencies were badly hit by the 'mega airlines'; some went bankrupt (small family business mainly) - but the others, through associations, media, congress and lobbies, fought back, and you know what? One by one airlines are repaying commissions, not only because of the pressures, but mainly because their sales dropped! The travel agencies are the main sales force in the market for the whole industry.

Like any activity in life, the travel industry (the world's largest) is changing - surely faster than many others - and it is the role, duty and aim of WATA to face these changes, propose new activities, approaches, education, communication, and this is why we at WATA have decided to build up this global, on-line communication bridge through the Internet by having our main marketing tool - the Master Key with its own Web site. We hope that through this good step forward, more exposure, business and professionalism will be available for all the WATA members. Allow me to conclude here on an optimistic note, saying that as long as a computer or a global telecom system cannot smell, feel, touch, see and shake hands, the future of the independent travel agency is safe.