Industry Reports

Travel Agents Help Plan Perfect Getaways

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Thanks to the internet, vacationing is easier than ever. New destinations and experiences can be found easily through Instagram. Hotel rooms aren’t the only place to sleep with the rise of sites such as Airbnb. And if you’re looking for an airplane ticket, then you have the pick of the litter when it comes to choosing a website.

But with that rise, travel agents are still finding themselves busy as their expertise in planning – combined with the ability to handle any problems that might arise – continues to draw customers.

“You’ve either used an agency in your past and realized the benefit or you’ve just gotten sick and tired of the research,” says Lisa Soletro Franks, owner of Palazzo Travel, Cortland. “It’s primarily a savings in time and we have some knowledge that you may not.”

With so many options for planning vacations readily available online, it can be easy to get overwhelmed by the multitude of choices and the volume of information. 

By and large, the duty of a travel agent is to develop a perfect vacation for clients, from the flight to the accommodations to the day-to-day activities. And to do so, agents have their own professional networks of tour planners, sales representatives and other agents to tap into, as well as their own experiences.

At Executive Tour & Travel in Poland, owner Kathy Pahanish and her staff take several trips a year to destinations within their specialty. As the expert at the agency on Hawaii, Pahanish and her husband go there frequently. Others go to Italy, the Dominican Republic, Aruba and wherever else customers ask about. While they’re staying in destinations clients dream about, it isn’t just fun and games for the Executive representatives.

“One of the most important things are hotel inspections. It’s important to stay on top of it. A change in the manager can change the whole resort. At one resort, staff went on strike. Those are things you keep an eye on,” Pahanish says. “I’m thinking of things clients have asked me about and we check them out because things are constantly changing.”

When planning a vacation, the most important thing is to ensure that everything’s perfect. The key to doing so, the agents agree, is having detailed discussions with clients about what exactly that is. 

Among the frequent topics are the budget, amenities, favorite activities and previous vacations, whether taken by the client themselves or the vacations the client has seen friends and family take.

“The hardest thing with someone new is getting them to open up and use specific terms. I get a lot of, ‘I want something nice.’ But nice can be many things,” says Debra Burger, owner of Burger Travel Service in Youngstown. 

“Everyone has an idea of what they want to spend on a vacation. Knowing that helps me know what not to recommend,” she continues. “If you say you have a budget of $6,000, does that include what you’re spending while you’re there? If not, your budget is much smaller and it’s much easier for me to understand.”

Making the process harder, Soletro Franks says, is the proliferation of social-media sites. It’s not uncommon for novice travelers to see posts on Twitter and Instagram, or even through a relative’s Facebook page, and want to replicate that experience.

“They see someone post a picture from the Maldives and want to go with a budget of $800,” she says. “We have to work to match their needs to their budget. There are times we have to be the realist and give them opportunities that fit within their dream.”

When a client lays out his dream, travel agents dedicate themselves to making it a reality and mapping out the itinerary. 

Recently, Burger planned an eight-week European vacation for a client. Rather than staying in traditional metropolitan centers, she says, he wanted to stay at a different bed and breakfast each night.

“None of these places would pay compensation. Then there were all the trains, all these other things. He knew that I’d spend the time researching. He wanted very specific needs for each bed and breakfast,” she says. “It was worth it to him to have me do that.”

The schedule for each vacation varies based on the individual and what type of trip it is. A cruise through the Caribbean will have daily itineraries available on the ship, so there’s rarely the need to plan out each day months in advance. By comparison, a trip through rural Italy will require more strict adherence to time as agents account for check-in and check-out times, traveling, stopping to see the sights and other planned activities. 

“It’s of the utmost importance to make sure there’s spontaneous time. I never want clients to be going through a marathon,” Pahanish says. 

What travelers do has shifted as well, Soletro Franks notes. As her clientele has aged, not as many want to take a full week of sitting on the beach. More common, across all ages, is the desire to bring the memory of experiences back with them.

“People want to experience something and do more with the culture and feel integrated with the community where they are,” she says. “People are looking for experiences more than just a getaway.”

Once clients are on vacation, the job of travel agents isn’t finished. They stay abreast of any changes and problems that clients may face, commonly delayed flights or weather. Many agents who sell tickets have access to the same booking systems the airlines use and can shuffle tickets around if one flight gets delayed, Pahanish says.

“Delta can tell you the only other flight available is through Newark to Atlanta then Tampa. I can see the same things that any Delta employee can see and I can see there’s an option with a single stop,” she explains. “They’re trying to fill their planes as opposed to looking at your best interest.”

Pictured: At Palazzo Travel, Lee Seifert and owner Lisa Soletro Franks say clients want to travel to warmer climates typically on cruises or to stay at resorts. 

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.