Are travel agents worth the trouble?

What has your travel agent done for you lately?

I ask because I’m in San Diego today, where I’m speaking to the ASTA Global Convention.

For almost a generation, travel agents have struggled to remain relevant amid the rise of online travel agencies and the internet. And now they’ve asked this consumer advocate to weigh in.

Here’s what I plan to tell them: You do good work, travel agents, but you also get your fair share of complaints.

I’ll tell them about Jacob, who lost $9,000 because his agency imposed a “no refunds” policy on his tour. I’ll tell them about Rachel, whose agent charged her more than $1,000 for someone else’s cruise and then refused to fix the mistake. And I’ll talk about Robin, who had to pay an $800 cancellation fee for a ticket, basically allowing her agent to pocket the money.

ASTA is positioning itself as an advocate for consumers. But when I get cases like these — forgive me — but I have my doubts. Agents are keeping people’s refunds, charging ridiculous fees, even billing them for something they didn’t even buy.

Come on.

I’ll tell agents that their secret weapon is their customer focus. Go after the bad agents. Advocate for consumers in Washington. Because when you take care of your customer, the customer will take care of you.

I have no idea how my speech will be received. I half expect jeers and rotten tomatoes from some of the agents, who have always seen me as a critic and adversary. But some people will hopefully see that I’m trying to help.

It should be an interesting speech. I have an infection in one eye and will probably be wearing sunglasses. (Cue the “Matrix” jokes.) I also won’t be able to see my notes with all the eye drops I’ve been taking, so there’s a high probability I’ll go off script.

Do you know any good travel agents? Do you work with a travel agent for your trips? Do you recommend an agent to your friends? What qualifications do you look for in travel advisor?

I’d love to know. Please respond to this email with your comments and don’t forget to include your city and daytime occupation. I may use your comments in an upcoming story.

Speaking of stories, here are my latest articles:

Have a great week. By the way, if you’re at the ASTA convention, please say “hello.” I’m the guy in sunglasses, wiping the egg off my face.

Update (8/28): Here’s the full text of my speech.

This is Jacob. He contacted me a few weeks ago because he lost $9,000.
How’s that? Jacob had booked an air-inclusive package to Hawaii through a travel agent that shall remain nameless. By the way, that’s not a real picture of Jacob. I’m protecting his identity, too.

When Jacob’s plans changed, he asked his agent for a refund. And even though his agent received money back from the airline and hotel, she refused to pass it along to him, citing her agency’s “no refunds” policy.

And this is Rachel. When she got the bill for her cruise, she discovered her travel agent had billed her an extra $1,000. Why? The agent had used her card to pay for someone else’s cruise. Then he refused to fix the problem.

And this is Robin. She just got back from her mother’s funeral. She booked her first airline ticket through an agent. Then she found a better deal online and canceled within 24 hours. (I know, that can be annoying if you’re an agent.) Now, under DOT regulations, you’re entitled to a full refund. But her agent imposed an $800 cancellation fee.

These may not be real photos, but they are real cases.
For those of you not familiar with my work, I run the travel industry’s unofficial complaints department. My site receives thousands of help requests a year. You can find me online — here’s the address. I publish many of these cases in weekly columns for the Washington Post, USA Today and syndication

Here are a few numbers for July — we had 438 form cases. These are the hardest of hard-luck grievances where people filled in a very detailed form asking us for help. For 2016, we had 3,536 cases like this. If you look closely, you’ll see that we count the OTAs but not individual travel agents.
You may have heard that ASTA is positioning itself as an advocate for consumers. But when I get cases like the ones I started this presentation with — forgive me — but I have my doubts. You’re keeping people’s refunds, charging ridiculous fees, even billing them for something they didn’t even buy.

Come on.

So, I want to ask you two really simple questions right now:
First, what does ASTA mean to you?

And second, are you listening to your customer? I mean, really listening?
Let’s talk about ASTA and what it means. Yes, it’s the leading travel industry trade organization. But what does it actually stand for? Is it just another logo on your window? Or does it set you apart from the other agents and the OTAs?

My readers ask me often: How can you find a good agent? And they want to know if that ASTA logo means something. And I have to be honest — I haven’t always known what to say.

When I look at these cases, I see agents who have lost their way. It kind of reminds me of what some of you call “the good old days” before airlines capped commissions and before the rise of the OTAs. I remember those days, too. Agents were in the transaction business, they were all-powerful, and many of them cared only about themselves and their bottom line.

But I also see an opportunity. Many of the rogue agents I write about are ASTA logo violators. They don’t even deserve to be called agents. But every now and then I run across a dues-paying ASTA agent who is not treating the customer right … and I have to tell you, that really makes me cringe.

Here’s a real email I got this week. Guy goes to travel agent asking for a round-the-world airline ticket. This is a major agency. Gets the brush-off. It’s so sad.

Is simply being an ASTA member enough? What other credentials or certifications can you show your would-be customers, to prove you’re the real thing? Or even, that you’re better than your competitors?
Can you show them references? A BBB page? What sets you apart?

I believe travel agents fall into two groups. ASTA agents, and everyone else. You are here today not just because you want to be better, but because you ARE better. And that means serving your customer better.
By the way, I’m not just saying that. I work with an ASTA agent for my own travels.

You also have something the OTAs don’t. You have something the non-ASTA agents don’t. You are highly trained and capable of delivering a travel experience with a personal touch. You can make problems with refunds and fees disappear.

And you also know … it’s all about the traveler.

I think your secret weapon is your customer focus. I’ve seen a new ASTA in the last year. I see how you go after the logo violators. I see the advocacy you do in Washington.

This is an organization that, from what I can tell, stands with consumers. And you know that when you take care of your customer, the customer will take care of you.

You’re probably wondering how these stories ended — the ones I mentioned at the beginning. What happened to Jacob, Rachel and Robin? I contacted all of the agents. Jacob and Rachel received their refunds after I got involved, but Robin had to pay her $800 change fee.

How will your story end? Will you watch more and more of your business get eaten up by fly-by-night, card-mill agents or OTAs, while you obsess about your bottom line and lose sight of what really matters — your customer?
Does the ASTA logo on your business card mean anything? Or does it mean everything?

I’m here to encourage you to set your sights on your customer and never let go. I’m here to say your logo means something — both to consumers and to me.

We have so much to learn from each other, so I hope this can be the start of a dialog between advocates like me and agents like you.

Please don’t become an anecdote in one of my stories. You’re better than that. Because you’re not just travel agents — you’re ASTA travel agents. Thanks for your time.

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