There is a small guesthouse on the island of Rhodes called the Koukos. Most of the place is dedicated to the tavern and restaurant occupying the first floor, but there are four rooms to rent up on the second. It’s a small place, tucked away in the back streets of the main city, and just a spectacular hotel experience.
It’s also next to impossible to find unless you already know what you’re looking for.
A new problem has emerged to disrupt the golden age of travel. At first Internet search engines like Orbitz and others arrived and introduced a critical service. They freed up everyone from the constraints of travel agents and booking fees and transformed transportation into a commodity that everyone could purchase, free of arbitrary gatekeepers. But somewhere along the way something happened to the online revolution.
Sociologists and political scientists call it “signal fatigue,” but consumers call it simply getting overwhelmed. There’s too much information out there. Travelers are increasingly unable or unwilling to search through the vast options made available by global booking sites, 95% of which are dominated by just four companies.
When the whole world is at your fingertips, you have to search through the entire world, and with hundreds of thousands of choices, it is increasingly impossible to choose.
The digital revolution stopped feeling like liberation and started to get frustrating.
A solution has begun to emerge, one that brings a human touch back to the technology of the 21st Century. It’s the new travel agent, and consumers have begun to respond.
As the world moved online, travelers began to find it difficult to find reliable resources for questions, concerns or been-there advice. Booking a commuter flight is one thing, but people planning a trip often want more detail than they can find at first blush. With nothing but dense screens and FAQ pages, booking a vacation started to feel a lot less exciting and more like getting customer support from the bank.
Online shopping has the same problem, except you can’t return two weeks at a lousy hotel and Chia pets historically have low rates of food poisoning.
It’s what led entrepreneurs to experiment with business models that combine web shopping with the customer service of a travel agent. The two most common are curated and concierge travel.
Curated travel keeps its web-forward presence, augmented by customer service for when a traveler has questions. It’s the approach of Gozengo, a site that allows individual purchases but rounds out the experience with a hotline staffed by travel agents. It’s a combination of the old school and new, targeted at travelers who like the ease of shopping for their own vacation but don’t want to feel completely on their own.
It’s an effort to bring the experience “back into balance,” said Josh Francia, general manager with Gozengo.
“For specific types of travel human elements are really crucial,” he said. “When we did our research we heard almost unequivocally how frustrated people are in trying to plan their vacation, with how hard it is, with how time consuming it is.”
Even when customers can reach a live person, on self-service websites they often get an agent who has little more than a script. That person can only help within the limits of their knowledge… and that’s usually not much.
Genuine expertise is the missing piece, and it’s what a traveler really needs. A concierge travel site lets the shopper ask questions and get feedback from someone who has specific experience with various destinations and properties. It’s a far cry from relying on online reviews, which may be ubiquitous but are notoriously unreliable.
Individual reviewers pull their opinions out of a black box, who knows whether your trip will reflect theirs, and sites like Trip Advisor and Yelp are notorious for squeaky wheel syndrome: the people most likely to review are those primed to give one star or five.
It’s often less than helpful.
The curated model emphasizes ease of use. Like a standard booking site a curated site lets travelers keep the benefits of putting together their own trip on their own time, generally from a pre-screened list of options. The experience only slows down when the consumer wants to place a call or call up a chat screen. That’s perfect for keeping the emphasis on convenience, but it doesn’t solve the Koukos problem: what to do about the unknown unknowns?
In other words, how do you book that great little hotel if you don’t even know to look for it in the first place?
That’s where concierge travel comes in.
The other end of the new travel agent spectrum, a concierge plans your trip for you. It’s less efficient than planning the trip yourself, turning what could be accomplished over a couple drinks into a multi-day process, but it also opens up a world of possibilities thanks to the expertise that a concierge generally brings to the table.
Consumers generally expect a lot of local knowledge and creativity from their concierge agent, said Vinal Burbeck, who started her business Bespoke Travel last year. A former marketer for Google, Burbeck said that she saw an opening in the travel market for someone who can make plans that the consumer wouldn’t have even thought of in the first place.
It’s the limit of the Internet’s do-it-yourself model, she said. While websites make easy to book almost anywhere, travelers first have to know what they’re looking for. What a concierge can offer is that element of experience and personal knowledge that answers the increasingly common question: “Where do I even begin?”
“We’re not talking like cruises, resorts,” she said, “because let’s be honest people can book cruises and resorts themselves within clicks.”
“What I’m doing is a lot more complex planning, research," she added. "Things that you might be able to find yourself but it would take a lot of time… What I try to do is take all of that information and whittle it down to what’s valuable and useful and use that for my client’s itinerary.”
Burbeck described helping one pair of clients set up a date night on their trip to Kyoto, down to researching Japanese tea ceremonies for them to participate in. It’s the kind of thing that wouldn’t even occur to many people, whether or not they could find the way to make arrangements through a website, and the reason that so many concierges have begun to do business.
With many professional consumers increasingly prioritizing time over money, Burbeck said, people are willing to pay to make sure they can get the most out of theirs.
Then there’s the world that never plugs in.
“Local” has become one of the most sought after epithets in travel. We want the authentic, the quaint and the small. We increasingly want the sense of getting something that can’t be found anywhere else. True to the character of such places, it’s not uncommon for them to do business offline, ditching the global infrastructure in favor of customers who live nearby. In other words, the locals. Travelers may never even hear of events like the Naxos Film Festival, no less find out how to buy tickets, without the help of someone who knows what’s up around the Cyclades Islands.
That’s the kind of experience businesses like Burbeck and Francia specialize in, steering consumers right before they have a chance to go wrong.
“I feel like those are things that you can’t find easily on Google,” Burbeck said. Setting up those trips is all about “customization and curation.”
In the end, it’s all about that final word: curation. The Internet has blown the doors down on travel options, so much so that individuals have begun to feel lost out there in a great, digital expanse. And a vacation is no small investment. Before we drop thousands of dollars and scarce days off on a hotel, restaurant or even city we’d like some sense of what we’re getting into.
The new travel agent offers that kind of reassurance, and the personal touch of knowing the questions you may not know to ask. They want to do for travel what Google did for data, paring down the Internet’s overwhelming amount of resources into something more useful and manageable.
It’s catching on.