Travel agencies offer personal service over websites

Published 12:08 am Sunday, October 30, 2011

At top, Charm Powell, Anne Lazarus and Cathy Fitzpatrick are agents at Lazarus Travel, which recently opened a downtown location in Natchez.

NATCHEZ — The Internet age was supposed to stifle travel agencies, but don’t tell that to the agents in Natchez.

Two agencies are still operating, and one of those businesses just expanded.

Anne Lazarus of Lazarus Travel recently opened a public location at 503 Franklin St. after working out of a home office since 2004.

Stacks of travel brocures are available for customers.

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Unlike airlines surprising customers with extra fees, the “extras” provided at local travel agencies are experience, communication and customization.

“If your air travel gets screwed up, or you lose your luggage, Obritz and Expedia don’t care,” Lazarus said. “It’s good to have a local, hometown person who’s got your back.”

Lazarus said booking the ideal vacation is all about communication.

“The first step, we look at the budget they have in mind,” Lazarus said. “And we determine — roll or fly. Then we talk about the length of the trip, and the level of accommodations. We find out what (the traveler) is interested in, how many are going, and from there it’s smooth sailing.”

Cathy Fitzpatrick, who has worked with Lazarus for four years, said sometimes travelers find out their dream vacation is beyond their price range, but a good agent will be ready with other suggestions.

“Someone recently asked about a honeymoon in Italy,” Fitzpatrick said. “They had a budget of $4,000, but at the time, airfare was $3,000. So we made a little change — they went to Sandals, where you pick what you want to spend because it’s all-inclusive. I told them, Italy might be for their 10-year anniversary.”

The agents said travel websites also advertise great rates, but the extra fees aren’t mentioned until the end of the transaction.

“You will see advertisements for fantastic cruise rates,” Lazarus said. “But by the time you’re through, with fees and extra charges added, you’ll end up paying a lot more. Nothing is what it looks like.”

Fitzpatrick said she recently had honeymooners heading to Costa Rica, but their trip got bumpy before they even arrived.

The couple found themselves stuck in Kansas after their connecting flight from Dallas to Costa Rica was missed due to fog on the ground.

“They called me at 6 a.m. on a Sunday,” Fitzpatrick said.

She said it just took a phone call on her end to book a new flight to an alternate Costa Rican airport.

“It was done in 10 minutes,” Fitzpatrick said.

Powell said that is the difference between booking through a faceless website as opposed to working with a real travel agent.

“It’s all about one-on-one personal service,” agent Charm Powell said.

Lazarus said one of the biggest misconceptions about travel agencies is that the client has to pay for the service — not true, she said. Travel agencies make money by booking through wholesale travel companies not available to the public. A commission from the trip cost is paid to the agents from the companies.

Margaret Rowe of Natchez Travel and Associates Inc. said she also hears that people think they will be charged for the service. She said the only times she has charged fees is when the trip is highly customized.

“But generally, I am paid by tour operator or cruise line themselves,” Rowe said. “I represent a sales office for them — we book their particular product, and they pay us. If the customer uses online travel sites, they pay same amount of money. The key is having someone to talk with.”

Another common misconception is that only luxury travelers need a travel agent, Lazarus said, but agents can book anything — be it a month-long European tour or just a hotel reservation by the airport.

Rowe, Lazarus and Fitzpatrick are certified experts in Disney vacations, cruises, Sandals vacations and more.

Lazarus added that river cruises are a popular travel option, and more people are taking trains to avoid excess airline fees. She said she is looking forward to booking river cruises on the American Queen when it is back in Natchez.

In addition to two outside sales associates in Oxford and the Gulf Coast, Lazarus hired Powell as an agent two months ago.

Lazarus said she and her husband did lot of traveling. After taking so many trips, and growing familiar with the industry, she became interested in the other side of the desk.

Rowe opened Natchez Travel and Associates in 1984, and she said the industry has changed quite a bit over the decades. But one aspect of the travel industry stays the same.

“It’s called the human touch,” Rowe said. “We offer what the Internet can never replicate — hands-on care, saving them time and money.”

Rowe works out of an unmarked cottage beside her home in Natchez. She said most of her customers are repeat clients.

“It’s about having knowledge to find the savings and how,” Rowe said. “And it’s all about value. It’s how much value a customer can get in their trip.”

Local agents said they also work with travelers to Natchez, booking them in local hotels and bed and breakfasts, arranging tours and informing them of what the Miss-Lou has to offer visitors.