Today's traveller arrives at their travel agency with more knowledge and information at hand than ever before.
Interestingly though, they are still most often making their final booking with a travel consultant instead of directly with the accommodation or transportation organizations they have researched.
It is a trust issue that seems to surface when questions are asked.
Travel agents tend to work with reputable organizations and, while trying to find the best prices for their clients, they are not likely to book with organizations they know little of from experience or reputation.
However, the Internet has changed the pattern of the booking process dramatically.
In a recent study published by research firm Compete in co-operation with Expedia Media Solutions, it found that, on average for long distance destinations, travellers will visit 38 websites before making their final booking. In the last week prior to booking the visits are even more sustained, at 15 sites explored.
This does not even count the number of visits they may make to different destination information websites during what I have termed the dream phase, when they are narrowing their choices from 'I want to go there' to 'Here's what's realistic.'
This makes the booking experience for the travel agent better than ever before, but with loads of potential pitfalls attached to the process.
Even the most well-travelled agent cannot know every property and minutia of destinations the client may have researched. At the same time, the discussion between agent and client is likely to be far more productive, since the clients have already determined much of what they are looking for. They frequently flow through the booking as a partnership of understanding and efficiency.
While travellers are often searching high and low for the best deals, and there is no doubt some are out there, few realize price discounting has largely been disallowed by major tour operators, especially those who market sun destinations.
Compare the sites of the largest websites to the most local of agencies, and you will see not only the price is the same, but most are powered by the same software package.
What the tour operators have done to stay within the laws of competition is to communicate that while a travel agent can theoretically sell for any price, they cannot advertise discounts in any way. Internet pricing is deemed to be a form of advertising communications in their eyes.
So the playing field is level. But that does not mean there is no difference in service or knowledge, which is exactly what today's consumer is demanding at all levels, travel or otherwise.
The ability for client and agent to view a website together has further enhanced that sense of partnership, and a good agent will appreciate the knowledge being passed on to him or her, without feeling threatened or defensive.
The growth in visits to destination marketing organizations for information by consumers has increased more than 30 per cent in the last three years.
Where the search for information is really important emerges as they are considering travel to more exotic destination, or to places they have a broad knowledge about but are looking for more specific feedback about regions and general facilities.
As example, from feedback of people considering Italy, the decision to visit Tuscany or the Amalfi coast, or whether to spend more time in Rome or further north in Venice and Florence, will be researched to a significant extent before more involved discussions with their travel agent get serious.
Cruise bookings, particularly for those first-time cruisers, is usually done through an agent after examining the differences in cruise line ship sizes and service.
While on one hand, early research does contribute to a more productive partnership between travel agent and customer, it can also lead to the potential traveller coming to the agency more confused than ever.
Everything looks good in a destination marketing website or a tour operator's online brochure. Those who have not travelled extensively in the past may be advised to start the process with their agency instead of allowing themselves to be caught up in the exaggerated claims by the property, region, or even country they were hoping to visit. This can be done without having them feel insecure as they are finalizing their decision-making process.
The other major area of consumer research is based on the reviews posted on sites like tripadvisor and other similar open posting sites.
In the past I have cautioned travellers to visit a number of these sites beforehand, and to ensure the numbers of posts are large enough to minimize the cheaters, who have really started to affect the credibility of these testimonials.
Not to say they are not accurate or they cannot be relied upon, but you are advised to do the extra work to ensure your choice is being measured fairly. Then discuss your preliminary conclusions with your travel agent, who may have already had significant experience personally or from feedback from clients of the travel agency.
One aspect of most travel agents I have observed is they truly are quick to internally share both positive and negative assessments they receive from their own client base.
Forward your travel questions to email@example.com. Ron Pradinuk is president of Journeys Travel & Leisure SuperCentre and can be heard Sundays at noon on CJOB. Previous columns and tips can be found on www.journeystravelgear.com or Ron's travel blog at www.thattravelguy.ca.