When I tell people that I run a fast-growing travel agency, you can see the doubt and wonder in their eyes. After all, didn’t travel agents go extinct when the Internet became ubiquitous?
The answer to that question is yes and no. Travel agents had to radically shift how they help their clients and where they add value when people could easily book travel online. Travel agencies didn’t disappear, but they had to change the way they do business.
Ironically, Ciao Bambino’s travel agency exists because of the Internet … it’s so full of information that families need help choosing between the options, and it is difficult to qualify what’s great for which ages and what’s not. Moreover, who is busier than parents? Nobody! We don’t have time to sift through all the information to understand the finer details that make traveling with children successful. And nothing replaces the value of a human being making recommendations when it comes to matching needs and true customization.
Moreover, what people don’t think about is that when they are buying travel off the Internet, it is still likely they are buying from a travel agent, just an electronic one. The fundamentals are identical.
Commission. Ninety-nine percent of all travel service providers offer commission to travel agents, whether Expedia or Ciao Bambino, for the business that we bring them. This commission is calculated off their published rates, meaning the same rates that they offer to consumers directly. Now, there is always the hotelier exception who doesn’t play well in the sandbox with their channel partners and offers rates on their website that are lower than the rates they will pay commission to agents on … but in general, smart hoteliers don’t bite the hand that feeds them and they try to promote channel equality by not doing that. Regardless, if and when this comes up for our clients, we always go to the hotel and ask them to honor the lowest available rate so our clients aren’t penalized for using our knowledge to make informed decisions about their family vacation.
If you consider your time valuable and worth money, the answer to that question is no, because good travel agents save their clients hours of time. Often they are able to source things that you couldn’t source directly online, even if your research time were infinite.
At Ciao Bambino, we charge planning fees for our services that are quoted based on the length of the trip and number of people traveling. Frankly, it is the only viable way to do what we do so well. Commission alone doesn’t pay for the time it takes to properly plan an age-appropriate family vacation. I routinely ask our clients if they think our service is a good value, and the answer to that question is a resounding yes, as evident in our annual Ciao Bambino trip planning testimonials post on our blog.
If you know exactly where you want to stay and don’t need any advice or contextual information, on the surface there is no value-add in booking the stay through an agent.
But even in that case, there is reason to engage a travel agent. Our Family Travel Advisors, for example, sometimes know family preferences better than the hotel knows its own family preferences, because we are getting continual feedback from other families on the pros and cons of different room configurations. In addition, there are cases where travel agents get access to deals that truly are better than those you can access directly from the hotel. We are part of the Virtuoso Network and have incredible benefits to pass to clients at their member hotels.
If you don’t know where you want to go and just have a high-level theme in mind, e.g. a beach or ski vacation, travel agents who book a broad spectrum of trips can provide invaluable guidance around different options.
If you know where you want to go in terms of the overall destination but you have to start digging around the Internet for advice on where to stop, where to stay and what to do when you get there, this is a travel agent sweet spot! This is where we truly shine … at Ciao Bambino, we hand-select many of the things we recommend by experiencing hotels and activities with our own children. And even when we haven’t been somewhere ourselves, our feedback loop is incredible. We plan trips for hundreds of families a year and get loads of invaluable, up-to-date details on everything from the current conditions of hotel rooms to kids’ assessments of individual guides to the activities that engaged them the most. We take that information and apply it to other trips. Our clients also love to give us feedback on trips they planned before they used our service — our knowledge base is unbelievable.
The fact is that even with unlimited time and money, you can’t publish every single tidbit on the Internet. Even if you could, it would bring forth the challenge of sifting through too many options. There is nothing that replaces human dialogue to create a true and relevant short list.
Multigenerational trips are wonderful and rewarding but complicated to plan. Finding accommodations that suit a variety of ages, interests, abilities and budgets is not an easy task. Extended family travel is big business for travel agencies, and we have time- and money-saving knowledge of the venues that work well for these kinds of trips. Plus, many families are celebrating special occasions when they travel together and want extraordinary events or activities to accompany their trip. Travel agents work with suppliers who can deliver touches that make a trip truly special.
Planning a family cruise is another category where a great travel agent who knows the ins and outs of the best kid-friendly cruise lines can make a huge difference. Cruising has always been a category where consumers have relied on agents for help and knowledge, so there are many expert cruise agents out there. And again, networks like Virtuoso give their member agencies incredible, exclusive perks to pass to their clients. All good reasons to use an agent instead of just spending the same or more time booking it on your own.
If a hotel or activity provider doesn’t live up to expectations or promises, no one has your back more than a travel agent. While the vendor might not care that they didn’t please a particular client who will probably never purchase from them again, they don’t want to burn a bridge with an entire agency who sends them lots of business.
Our expert Family Vacation Advisors can book best-in-class accommodations, recommend activities, arrange vetted kid-friendly guides, and more — all with one-on-one support. Click to send us a request >
Be clear about what you are looking to experience on a given family vacation. A travel agent is most effective when he or she is armed with as many details as possible, and then can make the right match in terms of the budget and other requirements.
Travel agents don’t create the inventory; we sell it. I always say that we can’t create inventory where it doesn’t exist. The tradeoff of having a client spend the time thinking through their “dream” destination is that their idea of perfection is likely not to exist in its entirety. There are always tradeoffs. To that end, it is a good practice to have that dream list prioritized.
If you are using an agent to work on your behalf, don’t book directly. Suppliers require travel agents to book their services on behalf of clients in order to recognize commission. If your travel agent sources something for you and you book it directly, they won’t get compensated for their work. And likewise, sometimes our clients stumble on something that they like better than what their agent recommends to them. The best practice here is to let the agent book it on your behalf; it won’t cost you more and, again, ensures the agent is compensated for his or her efforts. Yes, most travel agencies now charge planning fees for their services; the value of the service is made up of the planning fee and the commission, not just one or the other.
If a hotel offers you a better deal directly than they are offering your agent, give your agent time to match the pricing. As I mentioned above, the industry standard practice is that hoteliers offer agents commission off of their best published rates. When this doesn’t happen, most will make adjustments accordingly.
Take the time to establish a relationship with your travel advisor. They don’t need to become your best friend (although some do!), but the more they get to know you, the better equipped they are to make the right recommendations.
Be realistic and honest about your budget early in the process. Travel agents don’t make up the pricing for their suppliers. Unless your budget is unlimited, it is important to start the planning process with a realistic number. One of the things Ciao Bambino agents are good at is working with our clients to get creative around where to spend money. There are things that are worth a splurge … and things where you can cut costs. Our goal isn’t to get our clients to spend more; it’s to help them spend wisely!
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This is a challenging time for our clients given the uncertainty around the spread of coronavirus, particularly for those with near-term travel plans in impacted areas. We’re working with our suppliers on being flexible with their booking conditions, and enabling families to postpone travel to a later date without a penalty, when possible. Likewise, given the unpredictability around destinations that may be impacted in the future, we’re helping clients planning new trips and understand ways that they can protect themselves until the situation improves. We are ready to help our clients work through questions and concerns.