Wanderlust: Why we still need travel agents

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To get to know his ultra high-net-worth clients, Hong Kong-based ‘travel designer’ Lorenzo Urra, managing director of Global Nomad (global-nomad.com), turns to Proust. The French writer’s famously revealing answers to a Victorian confessions album inspired an equally provocative version that Urra created and emails to new clients. “These are extremely busy people. They don’t have time for extensive interviews but want highly personalised holidays.” His 18 deceptively simple questions are designed, he says, ‘to identify the client’s idea of pure happiness’. Their answers help Urra pinpoint the geography of that bliss, be it tracking black rhinos at Tswalu Kalahari (the Oppenheimer family’s 100,000-hectare private game reserve in South Africa) or diving among hammerhead sharks along the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef by private catamaran charter off Belize.

Urra’s business is thriving. Contrary to predictions that travel agents would go the way of the dinosaur in the DIY Internet Age, our transcontinental interconnectedness makes the most thoughtful, tech-savvy travel agents more essential than ever. Before takeoff, Urra sends interactive online itineraries that also give him feedback on the client’s clicks. This allows him to craft their ideal holiday with precision. 

“We are seeing travel getting incredibly personal,” concurs Singapore-based SmartFlyer (smartflyer.com) agent Erina Pindar. She knows to have freshly baked chocolate chip cookies delivered to one high-flying financier whenever he checks in at the Montage Beverly Hills. Similarly, if one of Pindar’s colleagues wants to know whether eco-chic Gal Oya Lodge (galoyalodge.com) is luxe enough for her Sri Lanka bound clients or if design darling Cape Weligama (capeweligama.com) would be a better bet, the agent simply sends these questions to SmartFlyer’s 100 affiliates around the world and the system operates like an ultra-exclusive TripAdvisor.

From Moscow to Manhattan, bleeding edge travel agents are experimenting with interactive online itineraries, satellite devices and high tech navigational toys. The go-to agent for Russia’s most adventurous oligarchs, Annette Loftus, chief exploration officer of Aspera Explorations, likes Spot (findmespot.com), which claims to have enabled 3,500 worldwide rescues, and BGAN (inmarsat.com), Inmarsat’s single user mobile satellite terminals.

However, one surprisingly classic theme comes to the fore in every conversation about innovation with these trailblazing agents. “It’s still about old school customer service,” says Jay Tindall, a dot-com pioneer prior to co-founding Remote Lands (remotelands.com). While the Bangkok and New York-based enterprise is constantly updating its behind the scenes technology, it’s his unusually well written blog posts that engage their attention. “People tell me they read about my road trips through North Korea or Vietnam’s ultra remote Ha Giang tribal region and say, ‘I want to go there’.”

At the other extreme, travel agents still offer the best insurance policy against the unavoidable. “Even changing air tickets is not so easy to do on the road,” says Loftus regarding the last resort aspect of these agents all encompassing remit. Tindall concurs, adding that ‘you can’t just change your private jet booking online’.

Follow Cynthia on Instagram and Twitter: @CynthiaRoams

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