Name your own price for that hotel stay. Be sure to compare all those rental car quotes. Then scour the Internet for hours looking for reviews, advice and the best travel package deal imaginable.
Does this sound familiar? For the last two decades, this is how many American consumers planned their trips to Europe, the Caribbean and beyond.
It always felt like you needed a vacation — after planning your vacation.
While online travel booking websites such as Priceline.com, TripAdvisor, Expedia, CruiseCritic, Travelocity and many others continue to flourish, there is a growing sense that consumers are getting inundated with too much information and they are starting to look elsewhere for their travel needs.
Instead of falling down that travel wormhole on the worldwide web, residents in Wilmington are starting to look for a local solution. And it starts by getting re-acquainted with an actual human being when it comes to planning and executing their travel dreams.
“People are starting to wake up to the news that travel agents are useful again,” said John Cagle, a North Carolina travel adviser and the owner of Cagle Travel in Wilmington.
“My business is definitely up from last year and even more from the year before. It’s going in the right direction and I’m just happy that people are starting to rely on us again.”
The recent return of the travel agent is evident in other markets similar to Wilmington and there are several reasons why. The U.S. economy is strong again, many agents are accessible almost 24 hours per day and Millennials are making travel a higher priority than previous generations.
But the biggest reason is pretty simple: “We are the professionals,” said Gerry Siekirski, co-owner of Warwick Travel, which has offices in Williamsburg and Newport News in Virginia.
“Everyday I hear horror stories from people about how they did it alone on the web,” she said. “Then they call and want us to fix their trip or vacation. If you’re going to invest your hard-earned money and time, then you should go with a professional.”
Siekirski should know.
She has been a travel consultant for more than four decades and has worked in Warwick’s Newport News office since 1989. Not only has she filled more than her fair share of U.S. passports with stamps from other countries, but Siekirski was one of two people in her company to surpass the $1 million mark for sales in 2016.
The 81-year-old has definitely witnessed the ups and downs of the travel industry.
According to a USA Today report, there was a high of 124,000 full-time travel agents in the United States in 2000, but the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates there are only about 70,000 agents in the business today.
“It’s funny because that’s what my friends said when I first started — no one needs a travel agent anymore,” said Cagle, 36, who started his company in 2010 shortly after spending a year traveling through southeast Asia.
“That may be the case for some trips: Wilmington to Las Vegas or Cancun for a few nights. But if you’re looking for an experience, like touring the quiet towns in Greece, hanging out in the home of a local artist and then going on a private tour with his friend who is a well-known winemaker. If you want to do stuff like that, well then you need an agent.”
The industry is picking up fast and many of the newer agents have started to specialize in niche markets such as adventure, group, luxury, historical or even cruise or river boat trips.
The old days of when vacation seekers would step into a travel agency and peruse the brochures that advertised already-determined packages are over. Travel agents who have been successful in their markets all agree that listening to the clients and designing trips around the client’s needs are paramount.
“It really comes down to exactly what they want and those tiny little details,” said Marta Corbitt, a UNC-Wilmington graduate, who opened her own travel agency in Virginia Beach two years ago and serves clients from all over the country.
“No one wants a standard package,” Corbitt said. “Our company offers a concierge touch where we take care of everything for you. From flights, TSA requirements and passports, to where you’re going to stay, dinner reservations, and that special boat trip.
“The goal is that we worry about everything and take care of it so you don’t have to,” she added.
Corbitt, 34, realized the importance of a travel agent at an early age.
When she was just 14 years old, she was standing in line at Norfolk International Airport with her 16-year-old brother and they were about to board a plane to meet their parents in Albuquerque, N.M., when the flight was suddenly canceled. Their parents booked through a travel agent and a quick solution to their travel setback was just a phone call away.
“All the other adult passengers, who probably booked online, were freaking out and looking at the departures board with no options in sight,” Corbitt recalled.
“Meanwhile, these two innocent teenagers were whisked away to another airline and we were on our way to New Mexico in no time,” she said. “That’s when I knew I wanted to work in travel. So I could help people in these crazy times of need.”
Two decades later, Corbitt just re-branded her company — Corbitt Travel is now Concierge Travel — and she specializes in assisting professional athletes with their travels. Kam Chancellor of the Seattle Seahawks and the Atlanta Falcons’ LaRoy Reynolds are among her clients.
She is coming off such a strong year that she is adding an agent next month and hoping to open a storefront office in Virginia Beach with a new administrative staff by the end of the year.
“I do feel that travel agents are back in the picture,” Corbitt said. “We are your ally. So when you’re on a business trip or on vacation, you can just sit back and enjoy. We’ll take care of it.”
The American Society of Travel Agents reports that it is currently seeing the highest numbers in three years for consumers booking through travel agents, according to an article published in The Atlantic.
Much of the new business is coming from the most sought after of demographics: Millennials.
“The older people are the ones who have always stayed with us,” said Siekirski, whose company employs nine people who each have more than 20 years experience. “But it’s the young people, this newer generation, that want to hurry up and get it done.”
Cagle sent one local couple in their mid-20’s to Thailand and another to South Africa last month. He said Millennials are prioritizing travel and they are willing to pay for it.
“It’s definitely a generational thing,” Cagle said. “The Baby Boomers wanted to get out of college or come back from war, then buy a house and start a family. While the Millennials are getting out of college and they want to spend their money seeing the world.”
Fortunately for Cagle and his colleagues, this demographic of younger travelers grew up with the overload and overwhelming flow of travel booking websites.
So after they acquire the means, they are seeking out travel agents and relying on their expertise to do the research, the comparing, the vetting, the suggesting of the right place, the right time and at the right price.
“I think that’s what sets us apart from doing it online,” Siekirski said. “We’re here to help you plan everything out and then we’re also here if something goes wrong during your trip.
“I mean we’re talking about travel, right? Anything can happen,” she said. “We’re here to help.”
For more information or to have your recent trip highlighted in our travel section, email travel editor Aaron Gray at firstname.lastname@example.org