Not-so-secret agents: Travel agents go by new names

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Milk & Honey's Brianna Glenn is one of a new breed of travel agents; here, a photo from Bali that appears on her blog.
Milk & Honey's Brianna Glenn is one of a new breed of travel agents; here, a photo from Bali that appears on her blog. Credit: Brianna Glenn

When Jacob Marek, who started IntroverTravels in 2016, tells people what he does, he often hears, "Oh, I didn't realize travel agents exist," he says. "There's, a lot of times, a stigma [around travel agents because people feel] 'I'm a traveler, not a tourist, I don't really need a travel agent.' "

Yes, live travel agents still exist in this era of online booking, but they're less and less likely to sit at desks surrounded by tropical posters and racks stuffed with brochures. They do their own marketing, documenting their travels on their blogs and Instagram. Their travel-
themed posts, which mix professional and personal moments, lure in clients who otherwise might never have used a travel agent.

And there are more of them than many might think. There were 105,085 travel agency employees in 2015, the latest year for which data is available. While that's a decline of more than 17 percent from 2005, it is relatively even with the 105,458 travel agents employed in 2010, according to Census Bureau data and analysis from the American Society of Travel Agents.

And research firm IBISWorld puts current employment even higher, at 232,848, likely including others such as self-employed and part-time agents. ASTA, the trade group, says that in 2016 more than 40 percent of its members reported working from home or elsewhere rather than at a traditional travel agency, up from less than 20 percent a decade earlier.

"I call myself a travel adviser," Marek, 34, says on a phone call from Siem Reap, Cambodia, during a monthlong research trip to the country. "That's the term I prefer."

He spends about half the year in the U.S., including at home in South Dakota, and the other half scouting sites around the world. No one comes into his office to meet, as he doesn't have one. "The center of my marketing strategy is the blog," says Marek.

For face-to-face consultations, there's FaceTime or Skype. His clients include Lexi Smith, who typically travels—and typically books travel—with friends or family. But the 30-year-old sales rep from Eau Claire, Wisconsin, wanted guidance when planning a solo trip to Iceland. So she reached out to Marek, whom she follows on social media.

Marek's company, as the name suggests, caters to introverts, often building in extra downtime and rest between excursions in exotic locales. While Smith calls herself "the exact opposite" of an introvert, Marek quickly pulled together an eight-day itinerary that suited her. "There's things that we saw that I absolutely would not have found on my own, no way," says Smith, whose November vacation changed the way she thinks about travel. "I can take these trips and have someone else help create the experience for me."

Kendra Revell, who lives in New York, booked her bucket-list 30th birthday trip to Italy, with Orange County, California-based Brianna Glenn, whom she found through another woman on Instagram.

"I didn't even think about a travel agent, but I came across her Instagram and I was honestly drawn into the fact that she called herself a 'travel designer,' " says Revell.

Glenn started Milk & Honey Travels about three years ago, mixing her love of travel from her days as a professional track and field athlete and the hours she's spent planning friends' vacations, researching itineraries down to details such as where to have cocktails at sunset. For Revell, she booked a room with a special bathtub on her birthday, and even sent bath salts as a gift.

"I'm trying to think about, 'What are the things I can put out on the web that people are searching for and they can stumble across me?' " says Glenn, who has a marketing degree from the University of Arizona. Her posts cover subjects like the best places to watch a sunset in Costa Rica or how to pack for your next tropical vacation. "Social media is the gateway for a lot of people finding me, not necessarily because they're actually looking to plan a trip ... it's really more about the long game," she says. "Then the selling takes care of itself."

Even industry giants are rethinking how they market their services. Liberty Travel, which has more than 100 retail shops and more than 700 consultants in the U.S., is finding early success with updated mall kiosks that entice people without a sales pitch.

Kiosks include one installed weeks ago at Westfield Garden State Plaza in Paramus, New Jersey, which features a tall airplane fin with a light. Touch screens offer diversions such as maps, quizzes and culinary recommendations. Though "customer engagement specialists," as the company calls them, stand nearby, shoppers can't book trips on-site. Instead, they're put in touch with travel agents to visit in person, online or on the phone. Liberty plans to open more kiosks across the country, as a more affordable way to test out new cities. It has also been opening agencies in some places people might not expect, such as on pricey Michigan Avenue in Chicago.

The bulk of Liberty's marketing budget is spent on digital, followed by out-of-home and direct mail. The creative work, done in-house, is also evolving to put less emphasis on specific pricing and to focus more on unique vacations and the connections people make when they are away.

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