There was a good chance that Ted Riegel could have been out of business some years ago. As the owner of The Travel Bureau Inc., the Wilton-based travel agent saw his operations shrink dramatically during the past decade due to the rise of websites for the self-booking of airline and hotel reservations and the evaporation of generous commissions offered to agents by the major airlines.
“I would say my business is one-half or one-quarter of what it used to be when I had a brick-and-mortar office and four or five people working for me,” he said. “We were about a $3.5 million company, with 60 to 70 percent coming from airfare, which was pretty lucrative in the old days — the airlines paid you 10 percent. We did a lot of international airfare and first-class travel airline bookings. But when the airline business went to hell, everything kind of consolidated and the airlines started to cut their commissions. And that was before Priceline or Expedia or any of those became major players.”
The Travel Bureau began in 1962, and Riegel and his father bought the business in the late 1970s. Today, Riegel is still busy at his work in a one-man home office, serving what he described as “a couple of hundred clients” in his file. “If you have a phone and a computer, you can do what you need to do,” he said.
Riegel’s situation is the new normal for today’s independent travel agents. According to the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA), 44 percent of the nation’s independent travel agents work in a home-based business, while 35 percent are in a retail setting and 15 percent are based in an office location. ASTA estimated 70 percent of travel agents employ fewer than five people.
“People think that travel agents don’t exist anymore because they are not on Main Street like they used to be,” said Erika Richter, ASTA’s director of communications. “Their business models changed, the same way that other industries’ business models changed.”
ASTA found travel agents processed 155 million trips representing $148 billion of total travel sales in 2015. Richter noted that ASTA research also determined the supposedly internet-obsessed millennials were relying on agents for advice on activities, tours, special requests and travel budgeting. Riegel said he was not surprised by this data, observing that while online sites might seem to be as easy as pointing and clicking, do-it-yourself is not necessarily synonymous with do-it-correctly.
“One thing that people make a lot of errors on is they don’t look at connecting times for particular flights,” he said. “Most of the algorithms on these sites will show you the cheapest flights — which is what 90 percent of the people ask for — but they will give you the cheapest flights with an 11-hour layover. I’ve had people call me and say that they could have avoided this if they spent $50 more, but they weren’t very careful at what they were looking at. Agents use a different proprietary website that gives connections that are within an hour or hour-and-a-half.”
Riegel said that many people get nervous when booking very expensive trips online. “They’ll buy an airline ticket for $200 to $400 online, but a lot of people have trepidation buying a $5,000, $10,000 or $30,000 trip online,” he said. “One of my clients booked five round-the-world cruises, at $150,000 a trip.”
Riegel said he relied on social media and word of mouth to generate new business. Recent online praise came from Westport-based entertainment writer Susan Granger, who used her Facebook timeline to glowingly highlight Riegel’s work.
“The reason we use Ted Riegel is because not only does he know the travel business, he also knows us: our needs and our preferences,” Granger said. “While it seems easy to do it yourself on the internet, no one out there is looking out for you. Many things can go wrong and often do. Having Ted there to take care of us is like having a safety net.”
Indeed, Riegel said that travel agents still carry significant clout with airlines and hospitality providers when a trip goes awry. “If someone in the Northeast bought their tickets through Expedia and is flying during wintertime and there are flight irregularities due to weather, an agency can go online and make changes and back-up plans without making a phone call,” he said. “It is impossible nowadays to get a hold of the airlines to protect yourself.”
Riegel is not eager to dismiss the online self-booking sites, admitting that they “serve a good purpose.” Still, he said that people who are searching through multiple websites for the best deal should consult with an agent, who may offer a particular insight that cannot be found on websites. Plus, not everyone uses or enjoys the internet, he said.
“For elderly clients or people that really want to have face-to-face, I can go to their house or meet them at Starbucks and bring them old-fashioned brochures,” he said. “Some of them don’t go online. If it is worthwhile for them, it is worthwhile for me.”