Ed and Sally Timmons meet with Richard Fernandez at The Travel Address for their trip to the Mediterranean Sea. Photo by Donald Promnitz.
Written by Donald A. Promnitz
After 34 years in business, The Travel Address in Fresno is showing no signs of slowing down in the near future.
In fact, owner and partner Richard Fernandez is busier than ever, booking everything from cruises in Europe to cooking classes in Italy for his customers — the conversations he has with them being balanced by phone calls with airlines to secure the best flights for them. Across the room from him, it’s the same for travel agent Lori McGrath, with many of her clients being (perhaps surprisingly) from a younger demographic.
“Lori up front, she deals with a lot of millennials — a lot of millennials,” Fernandez said. “Millennials are starting to use travel agents a lot.”
Meanwhile, the Travel Shoppe on the northeast end part of town saw the most recent travel season numbers end with record highs in cruises and free, independent tourist (FIT) travel — travellers who prefer to plans their own trips and avoid group tours. According to manager Hilda Morrison, FIT vacations have become especially popular with younger customers.
“For the people who are really just starting in the workforce — that are starting to use our services and everything — they’re really going after more of an authentic cultural experience,” Morrison said. “They want to be emerged in the destination.”
Their present success comes at a time when the Internet has created substantial pressure — and sometimes uprooted — other industries like retail and legacy media. In fact, when online booking emerged in the 1990s, it was a major blow to travel agencies across the United States. Back then, Fernandez explained, travel agencies were little more than airline ticketing businesses, not charging service fees, but instead received their commissions by the airlines. The emergence of online booking, however, led to thousands being shut down.
The ones who survived were the ones who were able to diversify services and go beyond the plane tickets. Now, it makes up only a small fraction of their overall business. Today, agencies like Travel Address cover every aspect of their customers’ trips, starting with immigration and paperwork, down to booking the hotel and guiding them to the best rooms, reservations for dinner, shore excursions for cruises and budgeting.
For new customers, it’s a process known as “qualifying.” Over time, however, the travel agent gets to know the customer more and more, along with their likes and dislikes. Eventually, they build a base of loyal customers whose vacations are more easily optimized.
“Just for instance, these clients who were just here, this was probably their 20th trip with me,” Fernandez said. “They are very, very good clients. They’ve been booking with me for years.”
Both Fernandez and Morrison further explained that this kind of customized travel plan isn’t something so readily available with a website. In a recent example of this, Morrison said Travel Shoppe was able to arrange for a couple visiting Rome to dine at the Vatican and tour it with a small group before it opened, before getting an exclusive look at the Sistine Chapel. Fernandez was, for his part, able to keep his loyal customers away from riding puddle jumpers after booking them on business class for their Mediterranean cruise.
At the same time, both travel agencies say they’ve been growing not in spite of, but because of the Internet. Bad and (more importantly) non-refundable trips have led to a considerable number of customers coming to them, wanting to try a human touch over a digital one. With the all-important qualifying process available to customize their experience, they then become part of that agency’s loyal clientele.
“If you buy something at a retail store and everything, you can’t take it back and exchange it and get a refund,” Morrison said. “When you’re booking your vacation to Hawaii… or Europe, you can’t take it back. It’s however you booked it. That’s how your trip is going to end up.”
To this end, a customer with an agent has the added benefit of being rerouted or booked elsewhere in the event of a bad hotel, cancelled flight or any other misfortune.
Because of their flexibility, and because of a loyal base of frequent fliers asking for their service, the travel agency itself doesn’t seem quite ready for departure any time in the near future.
“Our business is growing substantially every year,” Fernandez said. “Because more and more and more people are coming back to the travel agent community.”