Nearly one in three leisure agencies is hiring, according to PhoCusWright, a travel research firm. And in 2011 travel agencies experienced a second consecutive year of growth; their bookings account for a third of the $284 billion United States travel market.
This comes after years during which all signs seemed to be suggesting that travel agents would soon go the way of telex operators. And it’s true that the numbers are stark: During the industry’s peak years of the mid-1990s, there were about 34,000 retail locations booking trips. Today, there are 14,000 to 15,000, according to PhoCusWright. In 2009 alone, in the throes of the recession, bookings through traditional agencies plummeted by 23 percent.
But now, some green shoots. An improving economy and the corporate travel that goes with it seem to be converging with a population for whom booking travel online has become increasingly onerous and time-consuming. Just how time-consuming? Steve Peterson, the global travel and transportation leader for the I.B.M. Institute for Business Value, set out to answer that very question. In a survey of more than 2,000 travelers worldwide, 20 percent said it took them more than five hours to search and book travel online. Nearly half said it required more than two hours.
No one expects agency business to rebound to pre-Internet levels, but recent signs — like the fact that leisure travelers accounted for a 10 percent bump in sales in 2010 (a bit less in 2011) — suggest that agents can still play a relevant role. And though no one has been keeping track of the reasons travelers are turning to actual human beings, Mr. Peterson suspected it might have something to do with the drawbacks of the Web. “It’s come to a point that it’s too much information to be confident that they have the ability to book the lowest fare,” or uncover the best place to stay, he said of the respondents. “Consumers are hungry for that one-and-done shopping experience.”
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