Lea Pawloski has had it with booking travel on the Internet. The Winnipeg woman hit a glitch while using a major online agency to book flights to Orlando for her honeymoon - and found herself with a $900 hold on her credit card, but no reservation.
It took 10 days, numerous phone calls and a lot of time waiting on the line to resolve the problem. "It was a terrible experience," she says. "After that, I decided to go with a travel agency in my neighbourhood."
It was the lack of direct contact with a fellow human being, not a fear of technology, that sent the assistant bank manager back to a bricks-and-mortar agency. And a number of Canadian travel agents say she isn't alone. Though booking online remains hugely popular, stories of travellers going off-line for personal advice are becoming more common, they say - in keeping with a recent U.S. study that concludes travellers are increasingly looking to traditional agencies.
The agent who booked Pawloski's honeymoon trip says his clients complain about online information overload. "They don't know what is valid," says Philip Houde, owner of River East Travel and Cruise Centre in Winnipeg. "Some former clients are coming back and saying, 'I don't have confidence in what I'm finding. Can you do this for me?'"
The recent study by Massachusetts-based Forrester Research sends a similar message: that a small but growing number of travellers are becoming less comfortable with travel sites.
According to the study, which reached 4,634 adults who book travel online, only 46 per cent of respondents said they enjoy using the Internet to do so- down from 53 per cent in 2007. As well, only 34 per cent believe websites clearly present options and tradeoffs, down from 39 per cent last year.
Most significantly for travel agents, 26 per cent of respondents said they would be willing to switch to an off-line travel agency. This represents a slight increase from 23 per cent one year ago.
The survey results buck the general trend in travel over the past decade, especially in the United States; online agencies have been growing dramatically, and south of the border main-street agencies have seen their numbers drop by half. (Canadian agencies have held their own despite the online competition; according to the Association of Canadian Travel Agencies, there are about 5,000 agencies in Canada, almost the same number as 10 years ago.)
If there's a current shift in consumer behaviour, it hasn't yet had a major impact on travel websites. According to Sean Shannon, managing director of online agency Expedia Canada, 42 to 44 per cent of all travel spending in Canada is made online, and bookings with his company continue to accelerate. "Expedia's transactions worldwide were up 13 per cent in the first six months [of this year]" he says. That's despite the fact that fewer people are travelling during the recession.
Though Expedia has no research on where those new clients might have booked their travel in the past, Shannon suggests some may be moving away from the online sites of specific airlines and hotels in order to "compare prices, facilities and locations."
And what specific factors are driving people such as Pawloski to bricks-and-mortar agencies? Confidence, for one thing. David McCaig, president of the Association of Canadian Travel Agencies, says Canadian agencies benefit from government regulation in Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia. In those provinces, insurance programs protect travellers when travel firms close their doors.
But another answer may be a rise in leisure travel to more exotic destinations. This winter, fewer than one in 10 Canadians travelling in the U.S. and Canada will use a travel agent, says David Redekop, a travel analyst with the Conference Board of Canada. "However, more than half of travellers planning to visit the Caribbean [and]Mexico, Europe or the Asia/Pacific region plan to use the services of a travel agent," he says.
This reflects a general difference in approach. While one-stop shops such as Expedia, Travelocity and Hotwire tend to rule on the Web, many travel agents focus on particular regions and products. That means travellers need to know where to look for the best service. "Not all agents are created equal," says Mike Foster, owner of Uniglobe Instant Travel in London, Ont. "You need to find the right agent for you."
Foster, like Houde in Winnipeg, also says many new clients are complaining of the difficulties of booking online. These include trouble resolving problems, and a growing distrust of traveller-review sites such as TripAdvisor, which has posted disclaimers about fake reviews written by hotel staff.
Ellen Tucker, owner of Freedom American Express Travel in Saint John, says both leisure and business clients have told her they find online bookings are "too much nuisance." But despite the Forrester study findings, she acknowledges some travellers will always prefer to go it alone.
"These are people who did it on their own before the Internet," she says. "They like to have that feeling of control."
Special to The Globe and Mail