“Who are you going to call, the computer?” asks Nicolas Nasrallah, manager of Phoenicia Travel, who says agencies like his remain relevant because of the age-old desire to deal with a real human being.
“Personally, I would not want a computer to cut my hair or plan my honeymoon,” Mr. Nasrallah quips. “I would like a person to give me a price.”
An agent’s knowledge and expertise can prevent mistakes such as booking a flight to Lebanon, Kan., instead of the Middle Eastern country – an error that turned an Internet travel booker into a Phoenicia client.
In fact, the agency books many flights to Lebanon because of its focus on serving Ottawa’s ethnic community, some of whom don’t trust the Internet, Mr. Nasrallah says. Fear of identity theft as well as of sloughing through near-infinite amounts of online information keeps people walking through its doors on St. Laurent Boulevard.
The 13-employee agency founded in 1996 does have a website, but Mr. Nasrallah says he rarely bothers to update it.
“Our clients are our clients and referrals come from word of mouth,” he says. “If a friend of mine tells me a restaurant is good, I’ll go there.”
For many would-be travellers, booking a trip involves little – if any – human interaction. Currently, around 40 per cent of Canadian bookings are done online, according to Sean Shannon, vice-president and managing director of Expedia.ca, whose U.S.-based parent is the largest travel firm in the world by annual bookings.
That number will likely continue to climb because of increased ease of access, he says, as people can book on their laptop, tablet or cellphone using high-speed Internet.
“When we look at the upcoming generation, being online is like breathing air for them,” Mr. Shannon says. “I’m pretty confident that the trend will continue.”
But some say online booking engines cater to a different customer segment than travel agents.
For those looking for the cheapest possible tickets and rooms, or hunting for last-minute bargains, online is potentially the best way to go, says Warna Roa, an agent at Let’s Take the Kids travel agency, which specializes in family bookings.
Ms. Roa’s words of advice for those who think they can find a better deal online? “Go for it.”
Her agency doesn’t try to compete solely on price – instead, it offers budgeted, family-friendly vacation planning to make the most of the thousands of dollars spent during a trip.
After nearly 20 years of being located downtown, the agency moved to Billings Avenue in 2009 because of a drop in client traffic. It was then that the company decided to fully focus on its niche market and stop taking regular walk-ins. By working flexible hours and meeting clients by appointment only, the small firm is able to maximize its offerings.
Although booking with a travel agent may be more costly than going online, families are willing to spend the extra money for the security and knowledge gained from an agent.
“You’re not going to go to the hairstylist on the corner that will charge you $5 less. You’re going to go with the one you know,” Ms. Roa says.
Other travel agents, however, say they can compete on price and that booking online doesn’t always mean saving money.
Flight Centre, a global travel agency with more than 1,200 employees in 180 locations across Canada – five of which are in Ottawa – offers a price beat guarantee against any online deal.
“You’re not going to be able to get those flexible and creative fares that an agent could put together for you,” says Allison Wallace, Flight Centre’s media and communications manager.
Flying in and out from different cities, managing multiple connections and not wanting to spend hours researching online are all reasons why customers call Flight Centre, she says.
And when the Grimsvötn volcano erupted in Iceland last May, phone calls streamed in – even from people who had already booked tickets online and just needed help.