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VOL. 127 | NO. 140 | Thursday, July 19, 2012

Finding a Niche

Travel agents adapt to changing business landscape

By Aisling Maki

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This is the second in a two-part series looking at the state of the local travel agency industry. The first story ran in The Daily News June 29.

Linda Blaydes, left, speaks to Jan Oglesby at Gulliver’s Travel in the Oak Court Mall. The business has found a niche focusing on leisure travel.

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

The age of self-service travel, in which customers are performing every task, from booking flights and hotels online to checking themselves in electronically at the airport, has forced many travel agencies in recent years to close their doors.

While some Memphis area travel agencies have survived by catering exclusively to business travelers, others like Gulliver’s Travel have carved out a niche for themselves.

Jan Oglesby, co-owner of Gulliver’s Travel – which has locations inside the Oak Court Mall and at 2037 Exeter Road in Germantown – focuses on leisure group travel.

Although the agency caters to all types of leisure travel needs, Oglesby, who seems to have explored just about any location that could be named, doubles as a tour guide, escorting Americans to “bucket list” locales such as Mongolia, Antarctica and the Galapagos Islands.

Over the last 30 years, Gulliver’s Travel has worked to build long-term relationships with tour operators and guides around the world, who understand her clientele’s needs. In China, for example, the agency has contracted with the same tour guide for the past 18 years.

In addition, these high-end, off-the-beaten path tours, which often come with a price tag in the tens of thousands of dollars, are typically too complicated for an amateur travel planner to book.

“You need an agent for the kinds of things we do,” said Oglesby, who recently returned from leading a regional group through China, Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan and Thailand. “There aren’t a lot of people doing what we do anymore. We have people walk in off the street and book a Carnival cruise. They’re starting out and paying what they can afford. But over a 25-year period, their income, jobs and status in life change and they can take a better trip. We’re getting that long-term clientele.”

Baby boomers comprise roughly 35 percent of U.S. leisure travelers and take an average of about four leisure trips annually, according to the U.S. Travel Association. And many boomers are seeking that trip of a lifetime, such as an African safari or an Australian Outback adventure.

“The baby boomers are going to be retiring in droves,” Oglesby said. “They’re going to make it count, and they’re going to find someone with experience, who’s been to Africa 12 times, who’s been to Europe 40 times. They want someone with experience who’s stayed at a lot of places. That’s our value.”

And many of Oglesby’s younger clients, who are wary of booking online after hearing too many horror stories, first approach her for help in designing the honeymoon of their dreams.

A couple recently came to her with an online rate that seemed extraordinarily low for a stay at a Hawaiian Sheraton Hotel; a little research showed that one-third of the hotel would be under construction during the couple’s honeymoon.

Ashley Hunt, from left, consults with Jan Oglesby and Linda Blaydes at Gulliver’s Travel in the Oak Court Mall. 

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

“I went online and nowhere did it show they’re going to be doing that work,” Oglesby said. “It’s a matter of trust. You can go on the Internet and book your air, tours and cruises to Hawaii, but how can they interact with you? I’ve been to Hawaii 28 times.”

Cheryl Keating, Travel/MotorClub manager at AAA of Memphis, says she agrees that consumers are too often bombarded online with misleading or inaccurate information.

“We’ve got the reputation of the agency,” Keating said. “We work with suppliers who are legitimate and top-rated, reputable travel operators. They’re people we know, and they know us. They feel confident that we’re booking people on the right trip, and we feel confident that they’re going to do what they say they’re going to do. It’s having that middleman there to match the traveler up with the right vendor for their vacation.”

And Keating said those relationships often result in cost-savings for travelers.

“Because of our relationships and the amount of business we do with vendors, we get terrific prices. … We’re not looking at a one-shot deal; we’re looking at a long-term relationship. I’m booking people now who are the third- or fourth-generation travelers with us.”

Agents say another added value is having an advocate when things don’t go as planned at the airport or hotel; travelers have an ally who can alert them to schedule changes or potential problems, counseling them and offering solutions.

Oglesby said she believes the emotionally disconnected, self-service society is yearning for a return to good old-fashioned customer service with a smile.

“It’s that customer service – taking care of the clients one on one – that built our business,” she said.

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