Local Travel Agencies Focus on Creating Custom Experiences

“Who doesn’t love a vacation?” exclaimed Eric Sattler as he described his reasoning behind co-opening Grand Rapids’ newest travel agency—the Expedia CruiseShipCenter.

Sattler and his wife, Connie, opened Michigan’s first branch of the franchise in September and are excited to learn and work in the travel industry. Their decision was partly because of their desire to travel more—they have several opportunities to go on maiden voyages of cruise ships and other exciting trips. Their other motivation is simply because it is an enjoyable job.

“We did due diligence and talked to people in other parts of the country that are doing this and every one of them said how much fun this is,” said Sattler. “Even though we’re just getting started, I can see where that’s the case. People come to us and it’s something they want to do, this is what they work for.”

In recent years, there has been a growing misconception that the Internet has disrupted the travel agency business by providing people greater options for planning their own vacations; the Sattlers and Lauren Beachum, an agent at Witte Travel, deny this is a problem and are not losing sleep over current travel technology.

“I think people like the personal touch and talking face to face,” Sattler said. “A computer might be able to ask all of the right questions but a computer can’t get to know you. Ultimately, that’s what we want to do with our clients.”

Internet options may not have hurt travel agencies but they have shifted their focus from basic flight and hotel bookings to more intricate trips, such as cruises, bus or biking tours, and sometimes combinations of the two.

“Our role has shifted to place a greater emphasis on acting as a trusted advisor, drawing from our knowledge and firsthand experience to make informed recommendations and personalized suggestions,” said Beachum. “Contrary to the popular idea that ‘travel agents are a thing of the past,’ one could actually argue that we are more necessary and relevant now than ever.”

The variations in travel companies—especially cruise lines—are subtle. Having gone on several different cruises through an array of companies, travel professionals like the Sattlers and Beachum understand the nuances of each line. Some cater to the elderly, others to families; some have a large-scale experience, while others have a very limited capacity. The details of different trips are something that few first-timers could pick up on while looking at a travel company’s website.

And, as trends in vacations are drifting toward learning and understanding local culture, having a professional giving advice is especially helpful. People want more custom trips that are deeply immersive in local color and charm—it is difficult to plan for those accommodations on your own.

Beachum also says that smaller accommodations that provide multiple chances for the travelers to engage with their surroundings—like river cruising—are becoming more and more common. Trips like these provide large-scale travel amenities while providing a smaller, more culture-focused experience. Instead of exploring a single town in Germany one day, then one in Austria the next, you can explore several towns with smaller ports in one country. This would allow you to understand the fine distinctions of the local culture and provide a more personal cultural encounter.

So it appears the leisure travel industry is not struggling, it is simply moving in a different direction. There is definite value in having professional advisors when planning a trip—especially if you want to really experience the culture of your destination.

“When you’re spending thousands of dollars on a vacation, wouldn’t you prefer to have an experience that was arranged just for you by someone with firsthand experience,” Beachum asked. “Rather than a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all package that you purchased online?”

*Photos courtesy of Royal Caribbean

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