The internet may be stealing travellers, but Brigit Grant discovers that first-class service and unrivalled knowledge give tour operators the edge

mykonos

Mykonos

Chicago, Chicago, that toddlin town” is the call-holding soundtrack at West End Travel – and it’s a good sign. Opting for Frank Sinatra instead of some annoying slice of muzak suggests taste but, more importantly, it conjures up travel to an exciting place – which is the point.

Though do-it-yourself travel on the internet has soared over the past 15 years, there’s no denying that booking online takes ages,often feels risky and there‘s rarely a song to get you in the mood for a holiday.

Figures suggest that only 10 percent of leisure travellers now use a travel agent, but even those who are experienced at navigating their way around online agencies such as Expedia and Kayak can come unstuck when it comes to planning something more complicated.

“If you discover that your house has subsidence, would you attempt to fix it yourself?” asks David Segel (above) West End Travel’s tenacious owner. “The answer is no, you wouldn’t – you’d get a surveyor and if you had legal concerns, you would get a solicitor, so if you want a holiday or business trip to go smoothly…”

David doesn’t need to finish the sentence because the answer is obvious and, after 40 years in the travel business, he knows he is the first port of call for people who simply forget to read the fine print in an airline booking or miss the cost of hidden charges in unbundled fees.

“Let’s just say I’m not a fan of DIY travel,” admits David, who has been organising travel schedules since visiting Israel at the age of 18. “I went to see family who had planned every day for the duration of my stay. After two days, I bailed and came up with my own agenda.”

And he has been doing that ever since for his corporate, sport and leisure clients, while befriending the world on his global journeys so he can insure his clients have the best experience.

“I readily accept that if you want to go to Amsterdam, you can just push a button on the computer and bingo, you have a ticket and for that you don’t need us,” says David. “But if you have something bigger to plan, a one-to-one relationship with a travel agent is invaluable.

“I know what will suit a client’s needs and you would be surprised how, when it comes to recommending low-cost travel, I can get the best offers because I have a bigger pool to draw from.

“People are often fooled into a £200 flight to New York with Norwegian Airlines, but by the time you add all the extras, they can get a better deal on Virgin Atlantic or British Airways. And you have to buy the ticket straight away online, while I can hold it for you for three days or more. Plus, and most importantly, if for any reason you cannot go, I can get the tax back on the ticket which you won’t get on a website.”

David also knows how to please and handle the needs (demands) of his Jewish clients and got competitors (and their parents) to the Maccabiah Games in Israel and the European Maccabi Games last summer in Berlin, which is more tricky than getting football teams to the European Championships, which he also does.

As David rattles umpteen more reasons why a travel agent is still essential to the process of getting away efficiently, surfing for a destination starts to lose its appeal.

This feeling continues when Frankie Last at Expert Travel joins the debate. It’s clear that the team (Frankie, Stephanie Lipman and Simon Israel) at Expert Travel are well-placed to explain the advantages of using an agent because they have travelled so extensively themselves and wouldn’t think of recommending a hotel or destination without either visiting it or getting a detailed and informed perspective from foreign agents with whom they work and trust.

Frankie alone has acquired 38 years travel know-how and, collectively, the team has 100 years of knowledge.

“People have to consider that if they’re away and there is a crisis, an earthquake or a volcanic ash eruption, we are on hand 24/7 to help our clients get home,” explains Frankie. “We offer first-hand knowledge of resorts that you could never hope to find on the internet without spending weeks researching. More importantly, we understand what Jewish travellers want.”

Providing VIP services across the world is what attracts the Jewish audience to Expert Travel and the company can offer group rates to hotels and tap in to their index of tour operators to get the best prices. “Now you can’t do that online,” says Frankie emphatically.

Guaranteeing interconnecting rooms for families and selling the right sort of holidays to families with toddlers or teenagers is another way travel agents such as Expert have the advantage. “We also know the kind of tours kids will enjoy once a family is in situ as, too often, an internet site will falsely recommend a trip is for everyone and we know kids get bored,” adds Frankie.

Effusive Rafi Caplin at Holiday Designers in Woodford Green is just the sort of person you want to organise your vacation to Israel, Egypt and Cyprus because he has made many friends in all those places and can better any price you would find on line.

“Travel has been taken over by computer geeks, but I am a travel professional who started doing this in 1969, so I know the hotels I recommend really well and have access to rates not available on the net,” says Rafi. “With an Atol certified tour operator, you are 100 percent protected and that must be a priority.”

Anthony Gothold, managing director of Travelink was in Israel as the importance of travel agents was being discussed, which was appropriate, considering his company’s in-depth knowledge of the country.

“No website offering holidays and tours to Israel can compete with our understanding of the complex fares, hotel rates, and multitude of tours,” says Anthony, who is confident Travelink can offer a personalised service catering to a client’s requirements. “Agents operate differently to the way they did in the past. Rather than merely booking transactions or acting as order-takers, they are advisers. We work collaboratively with clients to sort through vast amounts of information and make informed decisions, much like financial advisers assisting clients in managing their money.”

As for future travel, agents have the lowdown on that, too, with David Segel predicting a big cruising trend. “All the ships are vying against one another to attract customers and there will be lots of offers,” he says and adds that the unspoken war between Virgin and BA can only be good for travellers.

Frankie at Expert reports on growing Jewish interest in Mykonos and Santorini, (above) but also mentions the Sani Asterias Suites on the Sani Resort on Halkidiki in Greece, which she describes as Greece’s answer to Monaco.

“A luxury boutique resort worthy of six stars,” she says quoting a client who texted her from the idyllic spot on the Kasandra peninsula. That’s right, a client texted Frankie to thank her for the recommendation, which illustrates perfectly the need for travel agents.

Useful numbers

West End Travel 020 7644 1500

Expert Travel 020 8922 1234

Holiday Designers 020 3384 0023

Travelink Group Ltd 020 8931 8000