2009-02-06 / Business
Booking travel in a digital world
Travel agencies use customer service to compete with Internet
In a time when the Internet makes it possible to book anything—a bed and breakfast in the countryside of Ireland or plane tickets to the most obscure airports in the world—the question becomes, Who's using travel agents anymore?
The answer? A lot of people.
Larry Tatelman of Sterling Travel in Camarillo says thousands of people use his services.
Tatelman, who's been in business for 21 years, has weathered storms that have shipwrecked the competition. He's done it, he said, by carving out a niche business and pleasing his corporate and personal-travel clients by paying attention to every detail.
"The whole thing is about value and service: You have to give people as much as you possibly can for whatever amount of money they're going to spend," Tatelman said. "And you have to treat people really, really well."
Before the mid-1990s, travel agents were paid by the airlines when clients used their services. Then, in 1994, Delta Airlines began slashing the commission it paid, and other airlines soon followed.
"That was the beginning, and the business changed forever from then on," Tatelman said
A few years later, airlines eliminated the commission entirely. But other phenomena made their presence felt: Because of 9/11, travelers were besieged with a host of restrictions, and at about the same time the Internet began to emerge as a popular way to book travel.
That meant that, with a computer and Internet connection, even a novice traveler could book an elaborate trip in the comfort of their home.
To stay afloat, Tatelman reinvented his business. No longer paid by the airlines, he had to start charging his clients for services he'd previously offered for free. Now to book an airline ticket Tatelman charges $38; the fee for a vacation package is $45.
To keep clients happy, Tatelman, his wife, April, who co-owns the business, and their nine employees attend to all the travel details. Clients get the hotel room they want or special requests they've made. Corporate executives and accountants have access to an assortment of employee travel reports from Sterling Travel's website. Tatelman said he also saves his clients the frustration of trying to contact someone at 2 a.m. to change travel arrangements by providing them with a 24hour emergency hotline.
"We've saved them a lot of time; we've saved them a lot of hassle; we save them hard dollars," Tatelman said. "We just take care of you and hold your hand from the time you book till the time you come home."
Marty Tenebaum, a client for 12 years, said he appreciates the extra attention. Tatelman helped Tenebaum, president of an import-export business based in Foothill Ranch, Calif., negotiate travel discounts with an Asian carrier for the frequent trips his employees make to the region. Although the travel deal requires Tenebaum to book business travel through an agent, he stays with Tatelman for another reason.
"They're very good at looking after their clients," Tenebaum said. "Otherwise, we wouldn't be with them."
What's more, Tatelman has whittled out a niche by specializing in celebrity-hosted cruises. For example, Sterling Travel offers a Canada-New England cruise with KVTAAM talk radio personality Tom Spence in July, and a Mediterranean cruise in September with Melinda Lee, food host of KNX-1070 radio. Prices run $6,000 to $7,000.
As for the future of the travel agent, the sky's the limit, Tatelman said.
"The best days of this business and the industry as a whole are still ahead of us," Tatelman said. "This business has got really unlimited opportunity—I see a very bright future."