Weathering the storm: Travel agents remain relevant in a changing marketplace

Capitol Travel Service consultant Barbara Kazmer answers her phone on an especially murky December day in Monona. She listens, nods, and promises quick action. A weather delay caused by an upper Midwest snowstorm has interfered with a CEO’s trip to Europe. 

Kazmer immediately makes a call to Delta Air Lines, and after several conversations using a telephone in both ears simultaneously, she successfully reroutes the CEO through Detroit. “Things like that happen all the time,” Kazmer says, happy to have been able to assist. Judging by the weather, there will be several of these calls today.

“We're the link between the client and the chaos.” — Kristin Chambers, Capitol Travel Service

Capitol Travel Service was founded in 1975 by Larry Chambers, and while he still has a hand in the operation, daughter Kristin, vice president, represents the company’s future. Kristin, 36, who grew up around the travel business, was witness to the days when airlines had timetables at every ticket counter and agents hand-delivered paper tickets to their corporate clients many times a day. 

It was also a time when everyone used travel agents and the airlines paid commissions. “It’s a completely different animal now,” she admits. “The industry has really evolved. We took a bad hit when the airlines cut commissions, then another bad hit when Expedia and online bookings entered the marketplace, and then there was 9/11.” Capitol Travel’s total sales were cut in half as a result, which led to the closing of the company’s west side office.

Resiliency is fueling a comeback, she insists, and travel has been “on the mend” since about 2011.

Preparing for takeoff

Capitol Travel has six travel consultants and is busiest between November and May. Chambers, who has worked in the business for about 10 years, usually handles group travel, and she’s currently juggling the wants and wishes of a student group heading to India, another group traveling to London and Norway, two groups going to Hawaii, and two on their way to Las Vegas. 

Corporate incentive trips, she notes, are seeing an uptick as companies become more comfortable investing in travel for their best clients and employees. Sometimes she accompanies them, but after a lifetime of travel (she was issued her first passport at age 2 and has visited every continent except Antarctica), Chambers also appreciates not living out of a suitcase.

A beep from her cell phone reminds her to check in with the representative of the India trip. The client makes last-minute adjustments to the number of travelers. “Do you need a smartphone?” Chambers asks, scribbling notes on a pad in front of her. “Wi-Fi? I’ll check on that today,” she promises. 

“Send over a logo and I’ll try to get logos printed on signs on the other end,” she advises, before confirming other details of the trip.

Group travel, Chambers explains, can pose significant problems: If a group misses a flight, rebooking 30 people instead of two is, in her words, terrible. “If there’s a weather delay, there’s nothing you can do. We once had a particularly turbulent flight on a trip. Afterwards, the wife of one of the travelers was ready to knock [my dad’s] lights out.” 

Travel agents get blamed for everything — schedule changes, plane turbulence, weather, missed connections, lost baggage, hotel amenities, room views, you name it. That’s the not-so-nice part of the consultant’s job. “We try to warn our clients about potential problems, particularly with weather,” Chambers notes, adding that someone is available 24/7 if problems do arise.

The whole package

Travel agencies make their money by selling tickets and booking tour packages. In the early 2000s, to replace lost airline commission revenues, agencies had no choice but to up the ante in customer service and charge customers for their expertise. Now, individual travelers pay fees on a sliding scale that can amount to around $35 to $40 per ticket. Family fees are often capped. 

Thankfully, hotels and travel groups, such as Apple Vacations and FunJet, continue to pay the agency about 10% on the cost of a booked room.

Generally, travel packages are the way to go, Chambers advises. “A trip to Hawaii might cost $1,100 in airfare only. We could do an air-car package that would be cheaper, even if you never picked up the car.” They can also book helicopter rides, theater tickets, tours, or other excursions in advance.

“The best thing we can do for our clients is be there so they don’t have to deal with stuff,” she said. “We’re the link between the client and the chaos.”

And there’s been plenty of chaos over the years. Just ask Marcia Kaiser, a travel consultant whose lifelong travel career includes 30 years with Capitol Travel. 

She recalls “Sarasota Saturday,” a reference to the travel nightmare that ensued after a major airline ran a misprinted advertisement offering a round-trip ticket to Sarasota, Fla. 

Seems a digit was left off the published fare.

Travel agencies had to honor the unbelievably low price, and area travelers, anxious to take advantage, were accepting any combination of connections just to get to Sarasota. 

That, Kaiser says, made for a long weekend.



Then there was the 1994 Rose Bowl debacle, which Kaiser was not a part of, though she shivers at the mention. “I block that out,” she says. Across the office, Chambers and Kazmer roll their eyes and shake their heads, recalling the ticket scams and lawsuits that followed. 

Kaiser laughs at the technological changes she’s witnessed through the years.

“When I first started — yes, we did have phones! — someone would call and ask for a price from point A to point B. We’d walk over to a huge book, a tariff book, with all the airline flights and fares in it. The airlines would send us periodic updates that we would insert into the book. We’d hand-write the ticket, hand-type the ticket, and hand-type the itinerary,” she said.

“When the airlines started to cut commissions, I didn’t believe that we would have to start charging fees for our services. That was the last thing we wanted to do, but it was the only way we could stay in business.”

A sticky Web

These days, the elephant in the room is the question of how travel agencies can remain relevant when travelers can book trips online from the comfort of their own homes. 

The answer lies in customer service, Chambers insists, and while the industry has lost hundreds of travel agencies over the years, she remains optimistic. “Everything was corporate for a while, but now leisure travel is coming back because people have gotten burned or they just want the personal expertise. You can go to Trip Advisor but you really don’t know who’s posting those reviews.”

Kazmer agrees. “If you book through an online service and there are major flight delays around the country, you’ll be one of 50,000 travelers trying to get your reservation changed.” Travel agents have more direct access to the airlines in problem situations. 

Another tip: Arrive at an airport two hours prior to takeoff. “You’re taking a risk otherwise. All it takes is one TSA agent to be sick or a machine to go down. That’s not the airlines’ fault.”

Then there are the travelers who miss their flights because they arrive at the airport too late after receiving notice that their departure was delayed. “That flight status can change at a moment’s notice,” Kazmer warned. “You need to be there for the original flight time. I can’t stress enough how important that is.

“After 9/11, everyone was aware and took the time to be aware. Now, people are taking things for granted again, but there are rules, and the airlines are enforcing them. If you’re late and you’re not checked in early enough, you can be denied.”

That’s good advice from local travel agents who work hard to fill a customer service niche vacated by the airline companies.

Kazmer laughs. “I once had a client in New York who said, ‘You can leave your wife, but you can’t leave your travel agent.’”

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