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(TNS)—What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. A case in point: travel agent. Many predicted the demise of the entire profession as online travel agencies began proliferating on the internet.

There were casualties. About a third of the agencies in business at the start of the DIY booking era didn’t make it. But many survived, coming up with new ways to stay competitive and offer services and skills you can’t get from your digital formatted seller. One of the most popular was to become a specialist in a particular type of travel—multigenerational, cruise, weddings/honeymoons, adventure travel, even specialist certificates for specific hotel chains and cities. Along with more extensive knowledge, they upgraded their image, assuming the role of travel professionals who bring invaluable expertise and knowledge to the planning process.

This, coincidentally, is what travelers are looking for these days. Travelers no longer want fabulous and glitzy; they want authentic local experiences. Millennial travelers, who are most likely to use travel agents these days, want their journey custom-tailored, and they want to try new experiences and to go to the places only insiders know. They do a lot of research until they find an agent with the background and credentials to provide that kind of insight.

The business of selling travel today bears little resemblance to the early days when an agent’s main function was transactional: using the booking systems to find and pay for flights, tours and other elements of travel; they’d also hand out a few resort brochures and ask you to pick one. They took your order, and didn’t ask questions.

The exact opposite of what the most insightful—not to mention successful—travel agents do today. The focus has shifted from the transactional aspects of booking a trip to the transformative power of travel, and how advisers can arrange an itinerary with such life-changing moments in mind.

Note the qualifier in the previous sentence: not all agents are created equal. Expertise is not acquired in a crash course, and tailoring a trip to the client’s wishes and dreams is difficult if you met her five minutes ago.

But within the industry, there are some agencies and consortia that are considered among the best: American Express, Signature and the Ensemble Travel Group. But the name most often mentioned is Virtuoso, the largest luxury travel network in the world.

Virtuoso, begun 30 years ago, now has some 11,400 travel agents working in almost 400 travel agencies around the world. Membership is by invitation only. And the agents work with a roster of some 1,700 preferred suppliers—hotels, resorts, cruise lines and tour companies—to ensure a consistently high standard for their clients and to keep in close contact with those suppliers for any changes or new developments in their products.

Oh, and you’ll notice pretty quickly these are not travel agents; they’re advisers.

And they literally are.

Creating an itinerary is a collaborative effort from beginning to end, and the first step is for the adviser to understand the personality, style and values of the traveler—and what she wants to experience and take back from a trip.

Virtuoso CEO Matthew Upchurch notes that clients often don’t have a specific idea about what they want to do or even where they want to go.

Advisers are skilled at asking questions that eventually form a picture of the clients’ idea of a dream trip. But even if clients come armed with what they consider the perfect trip, the adviser won’t book it without further inquiry to make sure it’s a good fit.

Sometimes it’s not. Steering travelers to good options is one of the benefits of working with good agents, and one way they can get the most value for their vacation investment.

Finding a travel agent (or adviser or consultant or specialist) who fits your needs—one with particular expertise in the destination or type of trip you envision—will require some research. If you work with a large network, it will be able to steer you toward the right adviser for your type of travel.

©2016 The Record (Hackensack, N.J.)
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