When Bill Lecos, president and CEO of the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce, needed to coordinate an Alaskan cruise with 31 family members, he turned to a person he trusted — Bo Kirchner, senior vice president and general manager for MacNair Travel Management. Kirchner asked the manager of vacation services, Trish Chandler, to coordinate the trip.
"We had never done a cruise before, the experience was wonderful," said Lecos, who credits MacNair for making it all come together.
Not only did MacNair handle all of the cruise reservations but it handled many of the add-on flights and side trips as well. And while Lecos used frequent flyer miles to book his own family's trip, he said that having one person coordinate it all was more important than having them book everything.
"Just being able to get one package was helpful," said Lecos. "Trish was able to negotiate good pricing for our group."
Sal and Mary D'Amico used Pat Kelly, in-house cruise specialist with Mount Vernon Travel, for their 50th anniversary trip to Italy.
"I think she did a wonderful job. She made it a lot easier," said Mary D'Amico.
WITH MORE AND more people using the Internet for business and home use, it would appear that travel agencies might be a thing of the past. Yet a survey of local agencies finds that they're busier than ever, and more important than before. Although some travelers are booking online, just as many are turning to their local travel agent.
"People are traveling again, and we find that a lot of people don't have time to work on the Internet," said Ellie Turner, partner with Turner, Trichel & Associates.
"I've been in this business 25 years, and what we like to do is give service," she said.
Turner said that she had a real last-minute request this week; she booked a honeymoon trip for a couple who were leaving this weekend. In this case, the groom was a frequent traveler and was used to traveling "on the fly." He had booked the airline flights, but they had no hotel reservations. The bride wanted to know that their destination was secure. Turner was able to accommodate that request.
ALTHOUGH THE Lecos family started planning their trip over six months ago, that's not the case for everybody. Kirchner said that the one thing that's been true throughout the industry is that people are booking later this year. Instead of booking in the winter and spring, many travelers held off to see what would happen both with the Iraq situation and the SARS epidemic.
"Our phones were slow, but now people are calling," said Kirchner. This means that there are more last-minute trips than usual.
Mary Peters, owner of Friendly Travel Inc., said that she has had many last-minute requests for vacation bookings, and she's been able to accommodate most of them.
"Travel has begun to pick up," said Peters. "Our clientele has begun to travel again."
Kelly said that her clients are booking at the last minute as well.
"They are afraid to make the long-term commitment," she said. Kelly said that many of the cruises are booked, and so she isn't always able to get them exactly what they want, but as an agent she knows where to look. Travel agents have many resources at their disposal and can often find a fare that is less expensive or more convenient than somebody would find if he is booking online.
"This is our business, we know what the normal fares should be," said Kelly.
"There is a misconception that the Internet is the place to bargain-shop, yet a lot of the bargains are not there," said Kirchner.
Although 25 percent of all flights are booked on the smaller airlines like JetBlue Airways, AirTran Airways and Southwest Airlines, Southwest flights are not included in the Travelocity.com's database.
"Unless an individual is studious and astute, the Internet has dangers and pitfalls," said Kirchner. "Travel is incredibly complex, and as we've found out since Sept. 11, it can be dangerous."
MANY PEOPLE still don't know that they need to be at the airport 90 minutes ahead of time. This is the kind of information that a good travel agent will pass along to his client. Agents can give travelers information about some of these new airlines: Are they safe? Are they reliable? They also have information on insurance packages.
Travel agents can be very helpful when a client isn't sure where he wants to go.
"They know they want to go, but they're not sure where," said Peters. "That's where our expertise comes in."
By talking to travelers about their likes and dislikes, budget, amount of time available and their expectations, she can figure out some possible destinations. MacNair finds that their Dream Trip Questionnaire is very helpful.
An agent is a good thing to have should problems arise during the trip. Kirchner said that if a trip is booked through MacNair and a client has a problem when he arrives at the destination, all he has to do is pick up the phone and call.
"If you booked with us, we will help you out. We'll find you another room, get you credit for original booking, whatever it takes," said Kirchner.
Peters said that she gives her cell phone number to her regular clients, so that they can call in case they have problems while traveling.
Kelly said that she recommends that her clients try to work problems out with the hotel directly, but if they need help, she will do what she can. Kelly sends a thank-you card to her clients’ homes while they're on their trip, so they'll have it when they arrive home. She said that she often gets a call from them with feedback from the trip.
This is more important than ever, because not only are airlines cutting their commission but also resorts are no longer providing the FAM (familiarization) trips that they used to. Kelly said that she used to be able to visit places for a small fee; now she has to pay full price to visit a place.
"If I don't know about a place, I will research it, however," she said.
Agencies do charge some fees, but they are minimal and may well be worth it to avoid hidden charges or having to change reservations because of incorrect information. Fees will vary depending on the type of services needed. Many agencies will waive the fee for a vacation package but will charge $20-$50 to book airline flights.
Some clients just need some flights and hotels, while others need the whole package.
"It runs the gamut," said Peters, who booked a trip for six family members to Hawaii recently. The package included transfers to and from the airport, car rentals, helicopter rides, sightseeing tours and hotel accommodations.
SOME TRAVEL AGENCIES specialize in certain areas. Patrick Barney started a travel club called 4 More Travel Club.
"We try to bring together people who like to travel," said Barney. "Our programs are in direct response to members' requests."
They're currently planning the club's most elaborate trip to date. In early November, a group will be going to Italy with the chef from the Springfield Country Club. This was after several members of the club attended one of the chef's cooking classes. The chef, who is from Milan, will go with the group to Italy, where they will visit his old school, go to vineyards, dine at special restaurants and tour Venice.
"It will be customized for the chef and our customers," said Barney.
He is also putting together a Lady's Spa Weekend to Hotel Hershey and a Halloween Weekend for families. Barney's agency also books regular packages for non-club members.
"A travel agent is indispensable when it comes to service," said Barney.
4 More Travel
7210 Joshua Tree Lane
Springfield, VA 22151
Friendly Travel Inc.
1506-D Belle View Blvd.
MacNair Travel Management
1703 Duke St.
Mount Vernon Travel
8601 Richmond Hwy.
SouthWinds Tours & Travel
6001 Arlington Blvd., Suite 100
Falls Church, Va. 22044
Turner, Trichel & Associates
8407-A Richmond Hwy.