What Online Travel Sites Can Learn From Traditional Travel Agencies

Consumers have more than a few options for online travel arrangements, yet traditional travel agencies are thriving. These old-school advisors have survived online disruptions that brought billion-dollar businesses to their knees — but what’s their secret?

According to recent data, millennials are more likely to use traditional travel agencies than any other demographic. Young people, not Baby Boomers with retirement income to burn, account for the resiliency of travel agents. 

As surprising as this information may seem, young people’s preference for customized care makes sense. Companies like Amazon and Netflix built empires on personalization, and who provides personalized services better than the professionals?


To thrive in the future, online travel sites must look to the past. Check out these perks offered by traditional travel agencies and consider how online travel sites can replicate their success:

  1. Bespoke Experiences

When people visit travel agents, they rarely walk in and pick a package off the shelf. Instead, visitors talk with agents about their preferences to come up with a tailored plan that promises an unforgettable vacation from beginning to end. To match that level of personal attention, online travel sites should do more to give customers exactly what they want.

Reservations.com recently launched a loyalty program called R-Club to respond to the growing demand for customization. Members of R-Club work with travel advisors based in the United States to come up with unique vacation plans filled with desirable experiences. R-Club advisors can help Reservations.com customers create plans from scratch or fine-tune existing ideas into the perfect trip.

Online travel sites cannot offer halfhearted bespoke options to appeal to new demands, though. Limited online options selected from a list, no matter how numerous, don’t offer the same feel as true personal attention. Whether via real human agents, AI-powered chatbots, or a new delivery system not yet available, online agencies must provide truly differentiated services to attract more attention.

  1. Exclusive Access

Traditional travel agencies know how to get things regular customers can’t find online. Even when that’s not the case, the perception is the most important part. People believe their travel agents can help them secure exclusive perks, and that belief drives travelers to keep coming back.

For online travel sites, exclusivity has become synonymous with differentiation. People can book flights, hotels, and restaurant reservations on hundreds of websites to get the same seats and rooms. They cannot, however, access special perks like backstage passes, meet-and-greets with chefs, and early access to major events. In the rare cases general audiences can get into the VIP room, they have to pay extra for the privilege.

One Concierge has built an entire business on the idea that people want exclusivity. Its VIP Event Access services offer clients the chance to attend private parties and secure special tickets through a large network of event hosts and affiliates. By taking a cue from these services, online travel sites can enhance existing offerings to offer unique options and benefits. 

  1. Inspiration

While most online travel sites require users to know where they want to go and what they want to do, a few have gone to the opposite extreme. Sites like Pack Up + Go send customers on short vacations to mystery destinations based on their preferences and interests. Surprise travel services like this one have experienced a popularity boom in the face of overwhelming options.

Traditional travel services rarely hear clients say, “Surprise me,” but they do help would-be travelers turn indefinite plans into concrete agendas. A good travel agent knows how to ask the right questions and provide suggestions for destinations travelers may not have considered otherwise.

The idea to help customers whittle down travel options isn’t new to online travel sites, but few sites counter confusion with inspiration the way travel agents can. Quizzes that ask five questions before spitting out results often come across as either profit-motivated or shallow. Users don’t want to go where the travel site earns the best margins: Users want to go places that provide the unusual experiences they seek. By helping users discover their options, online travel companies can help travelers find destinations and experiences they may not have considered without a bit of guidance.

People will always love to travel, but travel sites should not make assumptions about their market. Travel agents managed to survive an online boom that took out small businesses and industry titans alike, and they did it by doing what they have always done: provide stellar service that puts the needs of the customer first.

The way people book travel will continue to evolve, even if their love for adventure stays the same. Online services must keep pace with the needs and expectations of travelers to stay relevant in the years to come. By looking to the future armed with lessons from the past, travel sites can differentiate their brands while providing the personalized care modern consumers expect.