I’ve always taken a personal interest in the travel agency business. The first reason is because I travel so much, and the second is that my wife Ro worked in the industry for a long time. Over the years I watched many travel agencies struggle against the onslaught of the internet. In the 1980s, agencies booked nearly 80 percent of all airline tickets, but by the mid-1990s many were struggling to survive. Their challenge was simple: how to protect their expertise from being commodified big-time. At the same time as commissions were being squeezed, travelers were gaining confidence and going it alone. They learned how to do their own research, make their own bookings, and share experiences without any help from travel agents. The word ‘agency’ is a flashing red light: Watch out! Risk of commodification ahead. If your job is to act on behalf of someone, there is a lot more room for competitors – whether they are software or cheaper and faster new guys – to get in between you and your customers.
I feel the pain of the travel industry. We changed Saatchi & Saatchi from an advertising agency into an ideas company because of similar threats. From a model based on margins and percentages, travel agents are headed to the brave new world of people paying for their ideas. They are changing from an information business (which the collective might of the Internet does better than even the smartest travel expert) into an empathy business of foresight and imagination (which the Internet still struggles with). Knowing stuff is easy. Knowing the right stuff and how to connect it emotionally with people is another. Language matters, so I think that travel agents should not just change what they do, but change who they are. From Travel Agents, to Travel Reagents. It’s just like you learned in high school chemistry – reagents are the ones you use to create a reaction in combination with some other substance. The travel people that excel in the coming years will be the ones with an intimate understanding of the personalities, interests and passions of their customers. They have to come so close to our dreams that their prescience seems uncanny. It is no longer enough to book someone who’s into art into a hotel near an art museum. People are starting to expect their hotel to have decent art on display, to know the most helpful dealers in town, to have introductions to interesting private collections, to be able to get a room in an art fair town that is overbooked every year.
How will we know when we have found a great Travel Reagent? Try these three questions:
1. Have they ever called you unannounced and suggested an expedition that makes you think, “How did they know I’ve always wanted to do that?” It could be the Galapagos Islands in the mating season or the October get-together in Marfa, Texas, but only people with empathy for these special passions know why they are so important.
2. On your return from a trip, have they ever listened very carefully to what you had to say – and taken notes?
3. And finally, here’s a radical one, have they ever been some place you’ve been to first, simply because they trust your judgment.