The Washingtpn Post travel section has a piece on a reporter who ‘secret shopped’ an innovative travel agency.
Perhaps the time I spent last week in Charleston at a Conde’ Nast Traveler gathering of their ‘World’s Top Travel Specialists’ (I’m fortunate that my award booking service has been included in that list that now hovers around 140 people since 2010) that I’m especially attuned to interesting travel agent business models.
The traditional travel agent is, more or less, dead — you don’t generally ring up an agency to book airfare any longer (although Cranky Flier‘s Cranky Concierge service will do it). You book on Orbitz, Expedia, or the airline’s website directly. Or you search your airfare on Hipmunk or Kayak.
Something has been lost in the process, there’s little guidance on things like connecting times and cities — what a travel ‘should’ do given their preferences and risk tolerances — but that’s made sense because of the efficiencies of online and the cost of bespoke bookings.
Travel agents haven’t died entirely though. While Google and others are trying to improve the information gap lost through online bookings, there are still plenty of specialists doing very well applying their unique local knowledge and contacts to craft those bespoke bookings — usually not simple point-to-point airfare, but certainly specific knowledge of time, place, and people matters for crafting the best safari experiences, finding the right villa in Tuscany or Cabo, or connecting with the right guide in Laos.
That’s mostly a very high-end service. So I thought the Post‘s piece was useful in highlighting a company that’s working with smaller budgets to craft perfect trips and do it in an innovative way.
In the ultimate act of letting go, I bypass traditional travel agents and sign up with . . . Magical Mystery Tours, a small Washington-based agency that specializes in trips that are, yes, a mystery.
In a concept that’s part “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?,” part Match.com and part “The Amazing Race,” your destination is a total secret until you arrive at the airport. It seemed like the kind of thing that, when done poorly, could go very, very wrong or, when done well, could be very, very awesome. I’m a glass-is-half-full kind of person, so even though it went against most of my instincts, I took the plunge.
The planning process begins with a lengthy online questionnaire. About a month before my intended trip, I find myself sweating over how best to fill it out. Some details are pretty straightforward: How long do I want my trip to be? What’s my preferred airport? Where else have I traveled? How much do I want to spend?
…Barrett, the dedicated travel planner among Magical Mystery’s three employees, studies the client questionnaires closely to get a good sense of the person. She takes the climate of possible destinations into account and triangulates that with airfare and traveler preferences. In addition to relying on her own globe-trotting experiences, she looks to sources such as Conde Nast Traveler and Travel + Leisure for inspiration. She also gleans wisdom from travel agent forums.
The amount of time she spends planning a trip can vary from a few hours for a domestic, limited-time and -budget vacation to the 15 to 20 hours so far that she has invested in a two-week journey through Turkey.
…Barrett had told me to expect an e-mail from her a week before my departure. I’d find out my flight time and get a weather report and a rough packing list.
The author does a 4 night trip for less than $1200 in transportation and hotel, and spills plenty of ink about her process of trying to guess where she was going.
Anyway, I share this because I love innovative travel businesses, people finding ways to add value to the adventure lives of others in what’s otherwise a very difficult industry to be in.
And because — as obsessive a planner as I am — I could probably use taking a ‘mystery trip’ and turning my trip over to someone else entirely. Except that I’d probably insist domestic flights on American, and that anything international have confirmable upgrade space using my 100,000 mile flyer international upgrade certificates.
Thinking again about the idea, it seemed familiar, and it looks like I even linked to the concept a year ago talking about how Qantas and Air New Zealand used to offer ‘mystery flights’. Here at least they take care of your hotels and tell you what you’ll enjoy doing once you’re on the ground!