Travel agency is a business or organization which sells or promotes accommodation, transportation, attraction or other related products on behalf of suppliers (principals as often known, include tour wholesalers or tour operators, and hotels, airlines, cruises, restaurants, railways and car rental companies). At the same time, travel agencies as retailers speak for their customers in negotiating prices and arrangements of their choosing with the suppliers.
To travelers, the value of travel agency is that they can offer valuable advice and opinions or better price sometimes; For suppliers, they are a cost-effective distribution channel.
A common misunderstanding about travel agencies is that they do not deal with inventory. Occasionally (prime time) travel agencies do pay hotels or other suppliers to ask them to hold inventory, which at the time becomes travel agencies' inventory—If the travel agencies fail to sell the allocation that the suppliers could have sold out easily at peak period, the travel agencies will lose money. Big travel agencies tend to take a little risk to build a reputation—sometimes they can get you a reservation (book a room for you) even when the supplier itself (the hotel) cannot.
Travel agencies as commercial entities may be traced back to the nineteenth century with its root in 1758 as establishment of Cox & Kings Ltd. Thomas Cook opened his first office in Fleet Street, London in 1865 (www.thomascook.com). The first independent travel agencies offered travel tickets for rail, sea and land travel with accommodation on a commission basis for each sale (Page & Connell, 2006).
- In 1822 Robert Smart of Bristol announced himself as the first steamship agent. He began booking passengers on steamers to various Bristol Channel ports and to Dublin, Ireland.
- In 1841 Thomas Cook, secretary of South Midland Temperance Association, organized a railway trip of 22 miles for 570 members of his association. He bought the tickets at wholesale and sell them individually. The experience inspired him to a tour business.
- In 1845 the first modern travel agency was established by Thomas Cook in England, in association with the Midland Railway. Soon it developed into a chain of agencies selling their own tours to the public and representing other tour companies as well.
- In 1855 Mr. Cook launched operating package tours and conducted the world’s first international tour from England to the Paris. Mr. Thomas Cook is often regarded as the Father of travel agency business
- On 4 July 1887, Walter T. Brownell led ten travelers on a European tour, setting sail from New York on the SS Devonia, that marked the beginning of the oldest travel agency in North America—Brownell Travel
Travel agencies thrived with the expansion of commercial aviation from the 1920s. Before that, travel agencies mainly targeted at middle and upper class customers, but the post-war boom in mass-market package holidays resulted in the spawning of travel agencies on the main streets of most British towns, where working class got convenient booking of oversea journeys.
(Source: Laws, 1997:122)
Types of travel agencies
Operating a travel agency usually means marketing, planning, promoting and selling travel products and services, holidays and insurance, following up customer inquiry and complaints, providing expertise advice about rooms, lines, transportation, even visas or passports.
Typical duties of travel agent include:
- Arranging business travel or holidays for customers according to customers’ needs and preferences, such as schedules and costs
- Planning and arranging tour packages, excursions, and day trips based on calculating of travel costs and profit
- Collecting events, fare and schedule information
- Making reservations for travel, hotels, rental cars, and special events
- Assisting customers to get required documents, such as passports or visas
- Giving advice about local weather conditions, customs, and attractions
- Making alternative arrangements if changes arise before or during the trip
- Being communication bridge between customers and suppliers like hotels, airlines…
- Promoting travel packages for resorts and specialty travel groups
- Brendon, P. (1991) Thomas Cook: 150 Years of Popular Tourism, London: Secker and Warburg. (Traces the history of Thomas Cook over 150 years.)
- Beaver, Allan (1993). Mind Your Own Travel Business: A Manual of Retail Travel Practice. Radlett: Beaver Travel.
- Bottomley Renshaw, Mike (1997). The Travel Agent (2nd ed.). Sunderland: Business Education Publishers Ltd.