How online booking has changed the travel agent landscape

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, travel agent jobs declined sharply between 2000 and 2021, falling by nearly 70%. The proliferation of online travel agencies has made it easy for deal hunters, armchair travelers and business travel planners to track information and find the best deals at their fingertips. But don’t count out travel agents just yet—many are seeing a resurgence as travel recovers from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Travelpark used BLS data to analyze the decline in U.S. employment of travel agents over time, comparing the jobs to a timeline of online travel resources that prompted online bookings.

It is important to note the differences between the various booking option services available to customers Travel agents help clients plan their trips by making travel arrangements with suppliers. Examples of their suppliers include package tours, travel insurance, railroads, cruise lines, car rentals, airlines, hotels, etc. A travel agent’s clients include corporations, groups or individuals, who often have very different travel needs and expectations. For example, business travelers are spending 50% less on travel than they did pre-pandemic, but as they steadily return, many have concerns, including anticipating changes to entry restrictions, especially for international travel, as private conferences resume. Leisure travelers can turn to agents to recommend low-risk—but still pleasant—vacation destinations.

Travel agents may own their own business or work for an agency owned by someone else. Instead of working with travelers on an itinerary from the ground up, a tour operator, in contrast, will arrange specific packages with suppliers such as airlines and hotels. Then they will offer this package to their customers. On the other hand, booking sites make it convenient for travelers to arrange their trips and book them themselves, be it just a short weekend trip or a month-long international business trip.

Travel is forecast to return to near pre-pandemic levels in 2023—the US Travel Association projects that leisure spending will return to 2019 levels next year, and business travel will rise to 88% of 2019 spending. Read on to learn more about how online booking sites have changed the travel agent landscape.

The line chart shows the decline in travel agent jobs since 2000, coinciding with a few big events in the online travel and booking space.

Travel agent jobs have declined drastically

The Internet has significantly impacted travel—radically transforming the experience and improving the way the industry works. New brands began to emerge as traditional operators struggled to adapt. Digital disruption of the industry began in the 90s and continues steadily.

In 1994, Travelweb.com, the first comprehensive worldwide hotel property catalog online, appeared. It will soon include a feature that allows customers to book online. Then, in 1995, the Internet Travel Network claimed to be the first to oversee online airline reservations. ITN was the forerunner of GetThere, the reservation system for corporate travel.

In 2000, it was sold to Saber, which operated an automated airline seat reservation system. Also in 1995, Viator Systems—now known as Viator—started a travel technology business that helped provide online travel and destination travel bookings.

In 1996, a new player entered the world of online travel booking: Expedia. This online platform was Microsoft’s way of online travel. This effort has been incredibly successful, ranking it as one of the top online travel agencies in the world. At a time before e-commerce was widely adopted, Expedia gave consumers a way to compare prices on flights, cars and hotels—and book easily and securely on the site. The website’s first advertisement said that everyday people could now use “the same reservation system” as travel agents.

That same year, partly inspired by the US airline Southwest, Ryanair launched its famous low-cost airline model, which changed the airline industry in Europe by allowing travelers to book directly on airline websites. Bypassing travel agents and online booking platforms minimizes service fees and commissions and also allows users to choose any flight offered – not just those chosen by third parties.

Other players that emerged in the 90s include Lastminute.com, Travelocity, FareChase and Priceline. FareChase uses MetaSearch, acting as a search engine that collects fares from booking websites for hotels, airlines and agencies. This platform forms the basis of other online booking solutions such as Skyscanner, TravelSupermarket, Kayak and Sidestep, which act as a one-stop-shop for finding deals across different airlines and company websites.

In the same decade, information about travel destinations became more accessible to consumers. In 1995, Jeff Greenwald became the first travel blogger when he published a travel article for Global Network Navigator. Although travel blogging is not the same as online booking, it also makes a difference in the travel agent landscape. As information about travel routes and destinations proliferates online, more and more people are motivated to plan trips and make travel decisions—including bookings and tickets—without relying on the expertise of a travel agent.

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Overhead shot of a woman using a smartphone next to an open suitcase

The 2000s further accelerated changes in the travel industry

Tripadvisor was founded in 2000 with a mission to help people make better travel decisions. The company organizes hotel listings, makes them more searchable, and ranks hotels based on traveler reviews With this information at their fingertips, potential travelers can book using recommendations from other travelers instead of travel agents.

After September 11, it took nearly three years for air travel to return to previous levels after a peak of 65.4 million passengers in August 2001. As the travel industry deals with a downturn in business and leisure travel, these online platforms have become a saving grace for operators such as hotels and airlines that need to sell large amounts of available inventory. The travel industry’s reliance on these platforms remains to this day.

Another change came in 2003 when IAC bought Expedia. IAC’s websites, led by Barry Diller, attract up to 2 billion monthly visits in 190 countries, according to the company. In the first quarter of 2003, Expedia’s net income quadrupled to $26.9 million on revenue of $198.8 million, indicating a further rift between travel agents and their customers, who are now planning their trips online.

Although Priceline was launched in 1997, it did not grow in popularity until 2004 with the acquisition of Active Hotels, a European online hotel reservation service. The following year, Priceline also bought Booking.com, cementing its share of the lucrative European travel market. Also in 2004, the online home-sharing platform CouchSurfing was launched, offering travelers the opportunity to stay and experience with locals in their chosen destination.

Not long after, the travel industry saw a startup poised to fundamentally change the hotel industry. AirBedAndBreakfast—now called Airbnb—managed to secure significant funding in 2009, after which they grew so rapidly that, by 2011, users had booked 1 million nights on the platform, which was then available in 89 countries.

During the 2008 global financial crisis, airline stocks fell 68%, and cruise lines, hotels and resorts fell 74%. The next 10 years tested travel industry systems, and those that survived became more agile and accessible, especially for developing countries. Before the 2008 recession, China, India and Latin America accounted for 21% of international travel. By 2016, that share had nearly doubled to 41%.

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The impact of COVID-19 has been predictably significant

In 2021, the number of international arrivals was 1 billion less than before the pandemic. Experts from the World Tourism Organization believe the travel industry will not fully recover until at least 2024. Global spending on tourism and travel was less than half in 2020 compared to 2019. Employment has also been greatly affected, with 62 million people working. The global tourism and travel sector is losing jobs in 2020.

Despite the gloom and doom of the pandemic, it seems some recovery may be on the horizon for travel agents. The BLS projects a 20% increase in demand for travel agents from 2021 to 2031, exceeding its 5% growth estimate for all occupations.

Some have reported a marked recovery in business, even compared to pre-pandemic levels. A flash poll conducted by the American Society of Travel Advisors in early March 2021 revealed that in 2021, 76% of travel advisors saw an increase in customers compared to the pre-pandemic period, and 80% fielded inquiries from those who had never used Travel. Adviser before.

Due to the constant changes in restrictions and regulations, travelers have started reaching out to travel agents who can help them plan their trips. More travelers are looking to travel agents who can help when business trips, cruises and other plans are canceled or delayed due to health restrictions. As more agents become more adept at handling last-minute travel assistance assistance, their role may expand beyond just travel planning and help with crisis management and recovery for travelers.

As travel returns to life, the fortunes of travel agents can rise with it.

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