Ed Nawotka can't stand being put on hold when he's making travel arrangements. So he's decided to pay someone to do it for him.
Nawotka, a Houston resident, uses MyAssist, a personal concierge company specializing in travel. When a flight is delayed or he can't get into an exclusive restaurant, he calls the toll-free number, where a concierge is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, any day of the year.
"This appealed to me when I got really busy," says the editor of Publishing Perspectives, an online journal about the publishing industry. "Having someone else take care of it for you and monitor it for you, it's very helpful."
Before the Internet, travel agents from bricks-and-mortar agencies were the only people travelers could turn to if they had a problem booking trips or on the road. Now, travelers can go online and find any number of concierges, or personal assistants, to take care of their needs. Airlines and credit cards are also increasingly offering the services.
"An emerging breed of concierge providers are offering virtual assistance to time-crunched professionals at an affordable rate," says Shaivali Shah, a customer relationship consultant at the professional services firm PwC. "This is creating stiffer competition for those who provided these services ... to find new ways to stand out."
Spirit Airlines has partnered with MyAssist to provide trip-planning logistics, reservations and event tickets, for a fee of $9.99 per trip. Since October, customers who book JetBlue Getaways, a vacation package, have gotten access to a free "Concierge on Call" in partnership with travel insurance firm Allianz Global Assistance. Air Canada has concierges who provide airport assistance and make last-minute arrangements such as hotel and restaurant bookings for first-class passengers for free.
The rise of the concierge has irked many travel agents, who've seen their numbers drop in the Internet age.
In 2002, there were 29,522 travel agencies certified by Airlines Reporting Corp. (ARC), which processes airline ticket transactions. Last year, there were just 14,052. Nonetheless, the number of agencies that made a profit in 2011 increased to 55%, compared with 53% in 2007, according to the American Society of Travel Agents. Those posting a profit were agencies with sales of either less than $1 million or more than $10 million. Agencies in the middle didn't fare well, with sales decreases of anywhere from 21% to 56%.
Traditional travel agents say they've got what it takes to compete with concierges.
"We handle everything," says David Rubin of DavidTravel in Corona Del Mar, Calif. "A concierge service is only handling a few pieces. We wrap our arms around the client."
With flying becoming as pleasant as a root canal, airlines have realized that they have to give travelers, especially those in premium classes, the option of extra help at the airport.
For a fee of at least $125 a person, American Airlines offers Five Star Service assistance at 14 airports worldwide. It includes monitoring and rebooking flights and an escort to the departure gate and through customs. United Airlines gives its VIP frequent fliers 24-hour support through its Global Services program. Virgin America has a concierge on hand to take care of VIP clients at Los Angeles International Airport and New York's JFK International Airport for free.