Should travel agents act as web curators?

The amount of online content related directly or indirectly to travel is astounding. There are countless websites, blogs, Facebook pages, user reviews and an endless stream of travel-themed tweets. Only a few years ago a search for a remote off-beat destination might bring up nothing more than an obscure Wikipedia entry. No more; if it’s on the map you can be pretty sure someone’s been there and added something to the web to let the world know. Perhaps it’s now time to ask what it’s all for, before the world of online travel becomes an unsavoury stew of whimsical thoughts and badly-written dreams?

I was reminded of these thoughts last night while listening to the lively debate at the CIMTIG Question Time event. While the panel managed to cover a wide range of topics in the 90 minute session, the shadow of technology and its role for travel companies in effectively communicating their products and brands loomed large throughout (no surprises of course).

I enjoy this type of forum for many reasons, not least because it reminds me that there are many ways to plan your travels and that my way is not the only way. I travel independently and the same goes for most of the folks with whom I share travel-related chatter online. For the majority however booking through an agent, whether in person or online, has always been the preferred way to arrange a holiday. Millions may seek information and inspiration via various online channels, but they ultimately turn to an agent to make their booking.

This in turn leaves travel agents to attract customers by providing them with an attractive valuable proposition, and leaves tour operators working hard to design desirable products that those agents can sell, or that they can promote directly.

Which brings me back to the role of the internet. This is really a ton of stuff out there. Far too much, many would say (as David Whitley famously stated at last year’s Travel Blog Camp, “if there’s one thing the web doesn’t need it’s more stuff on it.” So where does this leave the travel agent, who is tasked with providing authoritative and useful information to their client on an ever-increasing range of destinations and products? Should they really be concerned with producing more ‘stuff’, as many are still doing?

What if there was a way of quickly sorting out the good relevant stuff from the bad, saving hours of wasted time trying to find useful information on a destination? If an agent was able to provide a potential customer with access to a manageable selection of quality articles (in whatever format) that provide the information that they are looking for, it would surely have multiple benefits. The customer will be inspired to book (I’m convinced that well-produced content really can have that effect) while the agent is soon established as a credible source of user-friendly and credible information, adding significant value to their offering to customers.

Such a tactic doesn’t require a travel agent to create their own content – why duplicate further what’s already out there? Rather it requires a little curation effort (maybe not so labourious for those who already invest their time on social media). Jeremy Head wrote about the multiple benefits of effective curation on his Travelbather blog. While he wrote from the perspective of the editor/writer, it is perhaps travel agents who could benefit the most from offering a slimmed down, personalised summary of good relevant stuff that’s already out there. Customers are already demanding this information but in most cases are doing their own searching, often with mixed results. If an agent can save them the trouble and be seen as a trusted expert in the process, this is perhaps a way to stand out in an ever more competitive market.

Author Information

Freelance travel writer

12 Responses to “Should travel agents act as web curators?”

  1. Hi Andy.
    Thanks for the reference. I absolutely agree. A travel agent with real specialism could be just as good a curator as a travel writer.
    Cheers!
    Jeremy

    February 1, 2011 at 1:48 pm
  2. Hi Andy,

    Much of my work has been for tour companies, agents, and operators.

    The benefits of original copy are massive, but not immediately obvious from our end. A simple directory would cut out the additional ‘stuff’, but all of this content has an even more valuable role to the companies commissioning it: it’s all for SEO. (I’ll spare you the details at this point, covered many times before)

    This move also creates lots of work for junior writers who are for ever worried about future revenue streams. Providing the rates are reasonable – as a freelance directly employed, they can be – companies get what they want, and site visitors sort of get what they want ( if they read the guides).

    So what’s the problem?

    In theory, all you’d need is one ‘curator’ per industry/ country, and who is that to be?

    Currently, it’s whoever gets to the first page of Google searches – and we are all, in some way, in our corporate writing at least, involved in this content capitulation.

    As for the ‘Cureditor’ post, it is happening. I’m working as one, managing the client one side, the writer the other, making the contacts, developing links and creating a position of authority within whichever industry the client needs. And the key to making this work: Twitter.

    If you can understand the context of the copy, you can make it work for the client – it’s just that you’ve created another responsibility for yourself, so just make sure your rates reflect this!

    Cheers, always good to hear your thoughts.

    February 1, 2011 at 2:29 pm
  3. It would indeed be interesting for us, customers, to be able to consult a database with edited travel information about our destination, and travel agencies are the right party to provide that.

    But will this also be profitable for the travel agency?
    I have my doubts about this, often it is better not to provide too much information.
    The brochures available at the travel agencies will for some be the only info they receive. This brochure contains the possible hotels (with number of stars, food, fascilities), the distance to the sea and the possibility for trips.
    Do you think they want to read about poisoned water and dangerous spiders, places where it’s dangerous or even about train and bus schedules?

    February 1, 2011 at 3:01 pm
  4. Nicholas,

    While there may be a few people who only rely on tourist brochures, increasingly travellers are online, mobile and looking closely at destination reviews.

    This way they can avoid the regions that have problems, or be better prepared.

    The difficulty is finding impartial reviews outside of commercial sponsorship, and a curator of information that provides it without obligation – exactly why the independent travellers and bloggers are so important to us.

    February 2, 2011 at 12:56 pm
  5. Thanks all for the excellent points.
    Nicolas, your question at the end of your comment had my thinking – would people want this information from their agent? (and would it be profitable to provide it?)
    I suspect many specialist agents already do, especially those who travel regularly to their destinations. Maybe not feasible for a small agent to provide all of this content on a wide range of destinations – but in that case is there a role for an external role as Mark identifies? Where content can be drawn down from a trusted source and provided in the context of the conversation between the agent and the customer? Again, the benefit I can see is of the agent reinforcing their position as that trusted and expert partner – even down to the subject of the local spiders.

    February 2, 2011 at 3:06 pm
  6. Nashid #

    I wholeheartedly agree. There’s just so much content out there. And getting more and more difficult to sift through the content to get what’s actually relevant and important.

    February 6, 2011 at 9:25 am
  7. You know, I went away and thought about this a little rather than my usual knee-jerk “What you said, Andy!” response. And I think my answer is no, now, though I wandered there by way of yes. See, asking a travel agent to curate the best material about their destinations could be quite the task. They’re not librarians, they’re masters of the deal, and, hopefully, they have more than passing knowledge of what they’re selling, but getting at the best writing/photography/third thing about ONE place is hard enough, being an expert in all the places you book? That’s a full time job.

    It would make more sense to have the local visitor’s bureaus take this on. They live and work in their destination/market and they should, in theory, have the skill to evaluate where the good stuff. Travel agents would be able to say, “Hey, the CVB has an awesome page on their site of hand picked great stuff about your destination.”

    Thing is, there’s a conflict of interest here — honest reviews about how the beach is crowded or there’s crime are not advantageous to CVBs or travel agents, right? So they’re going to pick the shiny stuff to promote when what would really benefit the traveler is material curated by a more impartial eye.

    February 6, 2011 at 6:17 pm
  8. Most of the good independent writing is written by and aimed at independent travellers. Agents and operators are going to be shooting themselves in the foot by acting as a curator for articles that promote independant travel.
    If they did it would be slanted towards highlighting the destinations and away from the practicalities.
    Local suppliers could act as curators. They would be happy to keep the practicalities but are unlikely to give a warts and all image of their locality as they want tourists to come.
    Personally, as a tour operator, i love sifting through niche blogs and google earth images to help me locate new and exciting stuff for me and my guests to do.

    February 7, 2011 at 11:06 pm
  9. James,

    I like your attitude!

    People are (generally) happy picking and choosing from the wider pool of information. There are no perfect destinations, and there’s plenty of character to be found by the roving eye and from the critical posts of an independent traveller.

    There really is little middle ground between the interests of people promoting a destination and those travelling independently. But if as a writer you can find a client with your attitude, and then demonstrate at least a degree of sensitivity, then there’s the formula for a great blog post.

    Honesty is the best policy; in my experience, travellers will only feel cheated if all you give them is a poorly disguised advert!

    Pam,

    I agree on the role of the CVBs, but they could also gain the respect of travellers and tourists by including links to some independent blogs – after all, it’s likely tourists will find them anyway!

    Regards, Mp

    February 8, 2011 at 10:49 am
  10. Hi Andy!

    Hope you are well. As you know, I was running a travel agency business when we met on the Galway press trip, which I have since closed up.

    There is a fairly reliable resource available to travel agents called Gazetteers, which I used to consult for visa info, check on resort reviews (they were written by travel agents and I found them to be pretty honest) etc. It’s not heavy on original destination content, but it was useful to provide info to customers and I think it’s probably the closest to what you’re describing.

    However, I tried to do what I could with providing destination advice via my own website, but as a one-woman band, to complete it was nearly impossible. I still often referred my customers to various sources of info (such as TripAdvisor – even bad reviews), but being an agent is a thankless task and customers usually go to whoever offers the cheapest deal – even if it’s a £10 difference – no matter how much quality information you’ve given them.

    I’d say that specialist travel agents who know their destinations well should keep doing what they’re doing – offering the information in person to a client or when they call. The agent has more chance of closing the deal, and the customer benefits from being able to ask questions and find out more without ‘information overload’.

    Andrea

    February 17, 2011 at 4:41 pm
  11. Hi Andrea, Good to hear from you – all well here. I hope you’re keeping yourself busy too!
    Agree with your thoughts (and the general sentiment here) that travel agents who specialise in a destination or activity already provide specialist knowledge to prospective clients. Sometimes it’s verbal, often it’s written content and occasionally it’s a curation of other material (such as pointing them to review sites or tourism office information where it’s half decent).
    I think you touch upon the hardest part of making it work financially for an agent – that however good a service you offer some folks will still take your hard work and go and book elsewhere to save a couple of pounds. It must be hard to balance time and money you spend offering advice and material against the risk that it’s all for nothing.
    Thanks for sharing your insights – hope to cross paths again!

    February 17, 2011 at 7:44 pm
  12. Hi Andy

    I’ve just written a (shorter, not as considered) post about this topic after my surprise at how little ‘add-on’ you get with travel agents these days. I think the travel agents that will continue to thrive as more and more people realise you can easily DIY when it comes to travel bookings are the ones who provide a level of ‘curatorship’ as you put it.

    February 18, 2011 at 4:06 pm