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Adapting to survive: Do-it-yourself travel more the norm

Those of a certain age may well remember arranging vacations using a fold-up map or travel planner from an automobile club. Many of us visited a travel agent for tips, recommendations and routes.

But, thanks to the emergence of the internet, the old ways have changed drastically. And, who would know better than Walter Klages, president of Research Data Services Inc. in Tampa, which tracks travel trends.

Klages, a consultant for the Citrus County Tourist Development Council, told members at their last meeting the internet is king when it comes to planning trips. Out of 14 common ways people surveyed in his latest summer 2017 research report about how people get their information about traveling, the internet travel sites and social media forums are far out in front.

Klages said travel agents may not be the big deal they once were in the U.S., but that’s not the case among Germans, the Swiss, Austrians, Dutch and some other European countries, he said. Different cultures and societal patterns.

But, in this country, travel agents have had to adapt.


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Selling experiences

Gail Sotrines started Sotrines Travel 10 years ago out of her home and is still going strong. It is possible, she said, to co-exist with the internet, mainly by showing folks what agents can do that the digital landscape cannot.

Yes, it is possible to go online and book hotels, cruises and the like. But some travel agents, because they have hundreds of contacts across the country, are able to sometimes get better deals and offer tips and recommendations, she said.

It’s all about personalizing people’s vacations, she said. Citrus County has an abundance of seniors who are not tech savvy, don’t have the time to deal with making arrangements themselves and want a travel agent to do it all, she said.

And a surprising number of millenials — born between 1982 and 2004 — are finding they are getting a better travel experience through agents, she said.

“They don’t want just a trip,” Sotrines said. “They want experiences while they’re (traveling) and they can’t get that doing internet searches.”

Sotrines doesn’t really like the word “agent” and prefers to be called travel consultant or adviser because once clients arrange a vacation with her, she follows them the entire time. If they are in London and are having an awful experience at a bed and breakfast, for example, Sotrines said she is only a phone call away to arrange an alternate plan.

“I would be with you the whole time,” she said.

Plus, sometimes images of a hotel or attraction on a computer screen may not actually be what you will find when you get to your destination, she said.

“What looks good on a hotel picture on the internet may turn out to be in a poor area of town and you don’t want to leave once you get there,” Sotrines said.

It’s not so much selling travel packages these days, it’s selling experiences, she said.

Finding their niche

Edward Johnston, owner of Leisure Time Travel in Crystal River, started as an all-inclusive agency in 1991 — helping people book airline tickets, cruises and such.

Today, he’s become a niche agent and is only booking Caribbean fishing trips. That’s a specialized area that people cannot do handily over the internet, he said.

Johnston said he has the contacts and the firsthand knowledge of the Caribbean and can give customers that personal touch. He even arranges for his customers to be met at the airport by a representative from one of the fishing lodges when they land in the Caribbean who directs them to their destination.

“If you’re going to survive, you have to adapt in this day and age,” Johnston said.

Johnston said he is doing well since becoming specialized and has clients in Citrus County and worldwide.

“It’s nice to have someone who knows the ground before you go, to get you from point to point in a safe environment,” Johnston said.

What folks are saying

The Chronicle asked readers on its Facebook site how technology has changed the way they plan their vacations and whether they use travel agents. Here’s a sampling:

— Amy Lively: Travel agent? What’s a travel agent? I use Trip Advisor when traveling to find popular activities, hotels and restaurants. Customer reviews are key and definitely influence each decision. My company also has clients in the tourism business who rely heavily (if not exclusively) on social media reach, website visitors, and travel planning aps for referrals and bookings.

— Andrea McCray: No old school maps for traveling, although they are helpful for teaching my children. My favorite sites are Booking.com and the direct hotel sites for best pricing. I review Trip Advisor to see about new places I am traveling to.

— Joe Marteski: Trip Advisor has changed the way I plan.

— Gary Mock: Our GPS (global positioning system) and Trip Advisor and a TripTic from AAA.

— Michael Seaha: Use computer to write out travel routes.

— Bonnie Kohler: (I) love maps.

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