Service With a Human Touch and Good Deals Keep the Travel Agent in Business

PHOTO: Liberty Travel
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Against all predictions, the "bricks and mortar" travel agency, the kind where you can walk into an office and talk with real people, is alive and well.

Even in the middle of the week, Liberty Travel in Manhattan was hopping with customers. With summer coming to an end, people were there planning their next getaway -- from Mikonos to the Caribbean to Istanbul.

Watch the full story on "Nightline" tonight at 11:35 p.m. ET

But wasn't the Internet supposed to have killed off travel agents, meeting the same bitter end as the once bookstore titan, Borders? President Obama even brought it up during a town hall meeting last month.

"Businesses have gotten so efficient," he said. "When was the last time someone went to a bank teller instead of using an ATM? Or used a Travel Agent instead of just going online? A lot of jobs that used to be out there requiring people now have become automated and that means investing in our kids' education."

But some retail travel agencies have survived. In the wake of the president's remarks, American Society of Travel Agents CEO Tony Gonchar released a statement saying, "[President Obama's] statement makes clear the need for greater education and understanding of the important role travel agents play in today's travel marketplace."

The travel business has changed dramatically in recent years as people started to book their own travel, becoming their own agents, said Henry Harteveldt, vice president of Forrester Research.

"Before the Internet, you had travel agents almost like high priests," he said. "You had to go to that church, but there were 30,000 travel agencies in the 1980s, even into the 1990s."

Now more than half of those are gone, but an amazing 14,000 retail travel agencies are still in business, including Liberty Travel. The company's CEO Billy McDonough said more people are coming through the door now than five years ago before the recession.

"The number of customers has grown every year," he said. "There is a migration back to traditional retail travel agents."

He said the secret to their success is Liberty's "vacation experts," and the luxury of doing business with a real person instead of an airline website.

"It's like anything else," said customer Pat Sutherland-Cohen. "Wouldn't you go to a professional to get the best idea of service?"

That service includes back-up -- when something goes wrong, you have someone to call, like all of those travelers stuck in the path of Hurricane Irene this week. But if they were Liberty customers they could call in, and more than 300 did, according to the agency.

"No one had to sit on hold for hours trying to get through to airlines, hotels or cruise lines, as we did all the work for them," said Liberty Travel Expert Jody Miller.

"We actually acquire customers around events like that," McDonough said. "If they booked online there was no one to call to try to help resolve that situation."

Second on the list of service is that Liberty agents have real knowledge about the world, including some who know multiple languages or have personally been to the vacation spots they send people to.

"That's way I like to travel -- to know in advance what it's going to be like. I don't like to be surprised," Sutherland-Cohen said.

Third in the service category – believe it or not – is price. At Liberty, they say they can almost always get you a standard package deal at or near the price you would pay online.

Liberty travel agent Jody Miller was able to book a trip to Rome at $1,621 per person, which included a flight and two hotel rooms for four adults, the same price Expedia.com offered. However, Miller was able to offer to knock $10 off the price per person, and she found something not found online -- a non-stop flight to Rome.

Back up plans, travel knowledge and the human touch are all what keeps Liberty Travel in business. Click to the next page to get Liberty Travel's top five tips for booking a vacation.

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