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Chit Chat: Travel agencies still in demand

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014 2:19 p.m. CST • Updated: Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014 9:17 p.m. CST
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(Sandy Bressner – sbressner@shawmedia.com)
Janet Foster, president of Wilson Travel & Cruise, works in her St. Charles office. Since the rise of the Internet, Wilson has had to change the business’ approach in order to survive.

Wilson Travel & Cruise President Janet Foster knows how easy it is for people to book airline tickets online these days through the proliferation of such websites as expedia.com and orbitz.com.

So her agency has had to change its approach in order to survive.

“The business has changed,” Foster said. “You have to move with your industry as the buying patterns change. Booking airline tickets is no longer a major part of our business.”

Not all travel agencies have been able to make the adjustment. According to recent statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 73,000 travel agents in 2012, down from 95,360 a decade earlier.

Foster has seen plenty of changes in the travel industry since she purchased Wilson Travel & Cruise in St. Charles in 1986. The travel agency was started by the Wilsons in 1962, Foster said.

One of the first changes happened as the result of the rise of the Internet in the mid-1990s, when airlines stopped paying commissions to travel agents and started selling tickets themselves, Foster said.

“The Internet has opened up ticket buying,” she said.

These days, the majority of Wilson Travel’s business is putting together vacation packages.

“Cruises comprise 25 percent of our business, with the rest of it being land-based vacations,” Foster said.

Oui Travel also has had to adjust to the changes in the travel industry since opening on Randall Road in Batavia in 1990.

“It’s very true that we don’t issue as many airline tickets as we used to,” said Oui Travel manager Cindy Brown. “However, I think that in recent years, especially this past year, I think that people are actually returning back to agencies for that kind of stuff.”

Her father, David Owen, started the business and continues to work there.

Brown thinks that more people are returning to travel agents because they don’t have the time or knowledge to plan a trip themselves.

“They don’t want to deal with it,” she said. “It’s confusing, because there’s so much out there. There’s so much information out there, and they don’t want to sift through it.”

Her customers also like the convenience of going to a travel agent who can check and double-check every detail of the trip, Brown said.

“People just want one-stop shopping,” she said. “ I had booked a cruise for someone recently, and they just wanted to make sure the flights were going to coordinate with the cruise times, and that they wouldn’t get there and miss the boat, things like that. I think there is a comfort in using somebody, a professional who knows what they’re doing and does it everyday.”

Booking plane tickets only comprises about 5 percent of the agency’s business, she said. Most of Oui Travel’s business these days is booking cruises, tours and vacation packages, both inside and outside of the United States.

“I just helped a gentleman put together a little trip,” Brown said. “He’s going to Oklahoma to see Lionel Richie. But he needed air and car travel and a hotel, and he wanted it all coordinated and I just did it. So it’s that kind of stuff.”

Foster noted that the employees at Wilson Travel have more than 20 years of professional experience, so they are well-versed in putting together a vacation package. Before putting together a package, Foster and her employees first try to determine the needs of the customer.

“We listen to their needs, and find out what they are after,” Foster said. “We do the research and pricing, and come to them with a proposal.”

Value, rather than the best price, is what is important to her clients.

“Our clients aren’t necessarily looking for the best price,” Foster said. “They are looking for the best value. They want a good product at a fair price.”

And although the Internet has presented its share of challenges to the travel industry, it also has proven to a blessing to travel agents.

“It used to be, you would have to go get a brochure,” Brown said. “You would have to go get destination information. You have all that information at your fingertips now. Most of the major tour suppliers will have online booking engines that are for travel agents only. If I wanted to book a Royal Caribbean cruise, there is a whole booking engine for just travel agents. You have to have travel agent credentials to get into that.”

Foster is confident that Wilson Travel will be serving customers well into the future.

“There is room for this kind of travel agency, and I believe there always will be,” she said.

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