The Wary Traveler

Travel Agents Come of Age

The American Society of Travel Agents is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this autumn, and in many respects it—as well as the traveling public—has every reason to salute the event. In 1930 the travel industry sprawled languidly across the American business horizon; it was disorganized, unregulated, unimaginative, and its outlook was cloudy. Three airlines were founded that year—United, TWA, and Braniff—but the flying time from New York to San Francisco was twenty-eight hours, and the fledgling airlines were unfortunately inclined to imitate the railroads, or at least to adopt their unattractive features.

If people were becoming curious about this new means of transport, the travel industry showed little awareness of it, and went right on booking steamship accommodations to the same old places. Wealthy families took their college-age children on the Grand Tour, where, with guidebook in hand, they wandered around the ruins of the Acropolis, visited St. Peter’s in Rome and the Tower of London, and had themselves photographed sitting astride a camel with the Pyramids in the background. The less affluent easterners would spend two weeks at a beach resort, most likely Cape May, Cape Cod, or Atlantic City, while those on the West Coast slid across the border into Mexico to see what a legal bar was like and to come home speaking knowledgeably about manhattans, side cars, and margueritas. The East’s true sophisticates would sail to Europe every summer on the Ile de France or the Berengaria or the Leviathan, while the well-to-do on the West Coast would take a Matson Line steamer to Hawaii where they would lie on Waikiki Beach during the day and dine in the grand dining room of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in the evening, wearing plumeria leis around their necks.

Labor Day ended all travel for the year: the summer hotels closed, vacationers returned to the cities and towns, and the big steamships began leaving New York for Southampton and Le Havre with only half of their staterooms occupied. The pattern of the American vacation was rigid and tolerated little variance. The train, the automobile, and the steamship were the chief means of travel; airplanes were, well, an adventure.

The big cities had travel agencies, but often they were regarded with suspicion by travelers, in many cases with justification. Agents rarely knew more than the public they were serving, and there were enough cases of fraud and canceled bookings to cause individuals to wonder if they couldn’t do better by themselves. It was to bring order and some workable professional standards to the agency business that the American Society of Travel Agents was formed. Oddly enough, it proved to be the right organization at the right time: the travel business was beginning to grow. Eventually, certification by ASTA would be required by a travel agency if it was to get commissions from carriers and hotels, but it never entered anyone’s head that in fifty years the industry giants—Neckermann of Germany, American Express, and Thomas Cook—would be so powerful that they could dictate policy in the travel field as well as politely book the accommodations their clients requested.

But there was the Depression and World War II to come before travel grew into a major industry. The four years of World War II—when all civilian travel was halted dead in its tracks—did a strange thing for the business. Soldiers returning home from foreign places told entrancing tales of what lay in far corners of the world; this, coupled with the accumulated savings of four years of wartime, primed the gun for the postwar travel explosion. People had money, time, curiosity, and a new and fast means of transportation. They took to the air like birds.

Some residual distrust of the travel agent is still encountered, but by and large ASTA has weeded out the incompetents and fast-buck operators, and the agency is now an integral part of the travel business. Having grown swollen and intensely complex, the travel industry has almost reached a point where some professional help is needed by the individual suddenly caught up in a nightmare of computers. The wise agent knows and understands the substructure of the business, the interlocking ownerships, the pressure points. Take Marriott, for example. Most people think of Marriott as a relatively small hotel chain. It operates, in fact, forty-two hotels in the United States; hotels in Amsterdam, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Acapulco, and Barbados; eighteen franchised inns across the United States; the Sun Line cruises to the Mediterranean, the Aegean, and the Caribbean (Stella Solaris, Stella Oceanis, and Stella Maris); domestic airline catering service with thirty-nine flight kitchens at thirty principal U.S. airports; international airline catering with twenty-three flight kitchens in Europe, South America, the Caribbean, Mexico, Africa, and the Middle East; contracts to manage food service at highway restaurants as well as hospitals, nursing homes, schools, colleges, etc.; airline terminal contracts to manage restaurants and shops at ten major American airports; two major theme parks, one at Santa Clara, California, serving the San Francisco area, and one at Gurnee, Illinois, serving the Chicago-Milwaukee area; 476 company-operated restaurants (Bob’s Big Boy, Roy Rogers Restaurants, Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlour Restaurants, Hot Shoppes, Big Boy Jrs., and Hogate’s Seafood Restaurant and Port O’Georgetown Restaurant, both in Washington, D.C.); and 1013 (as of the end of 1979) franchised restaurants in the United States, Canada, and Japan. That gives some idea of one company’s holdings and activities in the travel field. A good agent knows these things.

Many years ago ASTA realized that the greatest weakness of the travel agency, especially in the small-town shop, was the agent’s lack of knowledge of the resort world. It was easy enough to learn how to book space, but too often clients came in with no clear idea of where they wanted to go and, aside from free travel brochures supplied by the airlines and promotional-minded resorts, they found very little help at the agency. The “Fam” (familiarization) tour program for travel agents was launched, with the permission of the Civil Aeronautics Board, to correct this problem. Under the Fam tour ruling, employees of certified travel agencies could travel by air, both domestically and out of the country, at a 75 percent discount. During slack months, hordes of travel agents took to the skies, seeing at first hand the destinations they had been selling blind for so long. Travel agents are far more knowledgeable about the world now than they were before the Fam tour privilege was granted, but very small agencies still rely to a large extent upon promotional literature and the advertisements in their reference catalogues. In general, destination advice is the service agencies are least qualified to give.

But if advice is the travel agent’s least memorable contribution to the world of travel, his greatest one is certainly the GIT, or Group Inclusive Tour. The package tour, it seems, has always been with us to a limited extent, but only in the past ten years has it come to dominate the market and even to create new destinations and resorts. The agent has long known that travelers are (1) timid; (2) anxious about hidden costs; and (3) gregarious. The package tour handily disposes of all three. The timid can pass their anxieties to the tour director; no knowledge of a foreign language is needed, nor is there a tipping problem. The tour is prepaid, and there are no added costs to worry about at the journey’s end. And the traveler need never be lonely because he or she is always with a group. Even more important in a time when the dollar is soft and foreign prices are staggering, group tours almost invariably give the traveler more for his money than he could obtain by taking the trip alone.

Group tours now constitute a complex world of their own, complete with wholesalers, retailers, airline liaison specialists, hotel and local sightseeing representatives, marketing experts, advance salesmen, even speakers to describe destinations to organizations across the country. Many tour organizations now own their own aircraft and steamships, and gone are the days when “If it’s Tuesday, this must be Belgium” would apply. Tours now go to the Antarctic or to China or to Nepal; not only are the old boundaries erased in a physical sense, but there are new reasons to travel. Tours take groups off to distant lands to witness an eclipse, or to London for a week of theater, or to the Galapagos Islands to see prehistoric animals, or to business seminars or cooking schools or sports events. The group tour has split, has subdivided, has refined, and in the process has gobbled up the major share of the travel business.

What tour operators don’t find, they create. If an old, established resort isn’t capable of accommodating large groups, a new one is built. Acapulco had about absorbed its limit of tourists, so Cancun was built to take the pressure off the older resort. Where five or six years ago a broiling equatorial sun beat down on a deserted sandspit on the Yucatan peninsula, now there is a thriving resort with hotels, restaurants, shops, golf courses, and beaches. Already Cancun is crowded with package tours, and Ixtapa is being readied for the overflow. The requirements are well known to tour operators: the place must be easily accessible to large population centers, the climate must be warm, there must be golf courses and tennis courts, and the cost must be reasonable.

Quite often old destinations, which have slumbered peacefully for years, are taken over by operators and converted into spots to bring tour groups. The Canary Islands were just such a place. Accessible to both Europe and the United States, moderate in climate, they were given new hotels, new golf courses, their airport was rehabilitated, and charter groups began arriving even before the face-lift was completed.

Europeans and Japanese are traveling in numbers as great or greater than Americans, and here too the bulk of the movement is in package tours. During the summer of 1980, thousands of English tourists crowded into Miami, drawn there by favorable exchange rates and low-cost transportation. Tour groups are seen every day assembling in the lobbies of downtown New York’s largest hotels, and while many of them are American groups, just as many are Japanese or European. If odd and exotic places are suddenly becoming crowded, it is because they have suddenly been found to possess the facilities to handle groups. Just outside the Kenyan city of Mombasa there is a strip of sand on the Indian Ocean called Nyali Beach. Since its climate is warm all year, it draws European package tours in an unending stream. One hotel on a given day may be overflowing with Germans while an adjoining hotel is filled with Scandinavians. Another hotel may be filled with Swiss or English or Canadians, or even Americans. An official of Neckermann was quoted last year as saying that the German agency was transporting hundreds of Europeans to Tokyo at a profit of one dollar for each airline seat. The profit was not there, of course, but in the sale of side trips to Bangkok and Taipei and Kuala Lumpur and Singapore and other Asian cities. Who would go all the way to Tokyo without also seeing Hong Kong?

There are now 8600 travel agents in the United States certified by ASTA to perform commissionable services for the public. Mostly these services involve no cost to the client. Agents obtain confirmed airline and hotel reservations, or book clients on cruises or group tours, and get their remuneration from the carriers or shipping lines or hotels or tour operators. Interline bookings can be tricky, and here the agent is far more qualified than the average individual to come up with satisfactory connecting flights. The agent knows that as of this moment there are seven air carriers competing intensely for business on the New York to Los Angeles nonstop route, and while several may later be shaken out by the competition, this route right now offers the best airline bargain in the sky. He also knows that travel from New York to Des Moines on one plane isn’t possible, and he knows the truth of the assertion of the vexed Birmingham resident who said that when someone in a southeastern city died they didn’t know if they were going to heaven or hell but they knew they would have to change in Atlanta.

To an extent far greater than most people realize, the travel agent—with the help of the airlines—transformed the travel industry from the aimless, drifting business it was in 1930 into the nation’s second largest industry today. There are still serious problems in the travel business, many of which grew out of the very bigness that the agent helped to create, but on the whole the bottom line reflects credit on the travel agent. ASTA has a right to its celebration, and it may even be proper for the rest of the industry to join in. □