The history of travel advisors is a remarkable story of how a desire to travel evolved into a profession. Some of the milestones and developments that have led to today’s industry are well-known and documented. Others have been debated among travel historians for decades.
The following is not a definitive history of travel agents. Rather, it’s a journey through some of the most important events, ideas and decisions that contributed to making the industry we know today. It is also a tour of titles – professionals today haven’t always been called “travel agents.”
As you’ll soon see, it is not just titles that have changed over the years. The services offered have changed as well. Some in small ways, and some very big ways. We’ll begin our adventure through time, almost 175 years ago.
A man named Thomas Cook started a business offering one-day rail excursions in the United Kingdom from Leicester to Loughborough. The price was one shilling per person (which converts to approximately $5 in today’s dollars).
This bit of our history is probably familiar. It is often cited as the first business on record devoted entirely to travel. The title travel agent didn’t exist yet. In modern terms, we would probably call Mr. Cook a tour operator.
Thomas Cook popularized the idea of travelling in groups not just for transportation, but also for enjoyment. The company’s offerings later expanded to include excursions to “exotic” destinations like the United States and Canada.
Selling tours was just the beginning for Thomas Cook, which is now a globally-known and highly-diversified travel company.
TIME TRAVEL TRIVIA: A significant source of revenue for Thomas Cook was the sale of brochures! Part destination guide and part brochure, the price was 50 cents each (approximately $13 in today’s dollars).
Soon after Thomas Cook launched his business, many others began packing and selling their own tours. This not only brought about new competition but also created an opportunity for a whole new kind of professional: the travel advisor.
Travel advisors didn’t package or sell their own tours, but instead consulted on destination ideas, how to get there (usually by rail or steamship), how to find local accommodations, and of course, what to see and do.
Curiously, making reservations was generally not one of the services offered. Their service focused almost exclusively on information, advice and influence with hoteliers, tour guides and transportation providers. The access to information we take for granted today did not exist. Few people had telephones, and even fewer could make long distance calls. Most international communication was handled by telegram. Anyone with relatively current information about another city or country was revered as a valuable expert.
TIME TRAVEL TRIVIA: Travel advisors did not earn commission either! One hundred per cent of their revenue came from charging professional consulting fees for their advice and connections.
While the tragic sinking of the Titanic in 1912 caused an understandable slump in the industry, it also generated interest in transatlantic travel. By 1924, steamships were thriving again and travel to other states, provinces and other countries was becoming increasingly common.
The demand for air travel was starting to grow as major cities across North America opened or announced plans for airports. While still more expensive than rail (and with far fewer routes), air was becoming an important segment of the industry.
Coordinating train schedules with infrequent, unreliable flights, and arranging for a hotel before arrival could be frustrating. This frustration inspired a new type of travel professional: the tourist agent. They answered questions about transportation and accommodation, and even made reservations in some cases.
Taking advantage of this development, in 1924, Ward Grenelle Foster expanded on a concept he originally started in 1888. Innkeepers in his home city of St. Augustine, Florida, would send guests to him with their travel-related questions. “Go ask Mr. Foster,” they’d say. In a few short years, Ask Mr. Foster Travel opened more than 70 locations. His was the first large chain of tourist agents in the United States.
He only employed single women as agents. He was once quoted as saying: “women are more interested in the problems that come to them and have more graciousness in their attitude toward people.” Some say it was this policy that fueled the domination of the industry by women – something we still see today.
TIME TRAVEL TRIVIA: Ask Mr. Foster became part of Carlson Travel (as it was then known) in 1979. The last of the original “Foster Girls,” Genevieve Kenna, died at the age of 94 in 1995, having been hired by Mr. Foster himself.
With air travel becoming more affordable and commercial transatlantic flights on the horizon, steamship companies were getting nervous. Still seen primarily as a mode of transportation rather than a vacation itself, creating a more inviting and relaxing onboard experience required heavy investment.
At the same time, a small group of tourist agents had banded together to pressure the steamship companies into paying them for recommending their ships to clients. As a result, the idea of commission in exchange for reservations was born. However, when it was announced to the industry, it was not well-received.
Most tourist agents objected to commission. They argued: “We are now paid by our clients to provide honest, unbiased advice. Getting paid from a supplier would cast doubt on that advice!” They also said: “Part of our job is to find the best price, but commission is a reward for doing the opposite – it’s a conflict of interest and we’ll lose their trust.” Some even claimed: “This will be the death of the industry!”
Perhaps the most interesting objection was this: “Accepting commission from suppliers will transform us from consultants representing clients, into sales agents representing travel suppliers.”
Regardless of the objections, getting paid for making reservations was too appealing to resist. In 1931, commission for steamship bookings became the norm. In no time at all, the model spread to almost every sector of the industry.
Fee-based tourist agents still existed, but the newer commission-based travel agents slowly became the majority.
Interesting fact: The group of tourist agents that first negotiated with the steamship companies eventually formalized their organization. Today, we call them ASTA! Their original name however was not the American Society of Travel Agents. Appropriate to the times, they were first called the American Steamship and Tourist Agents Association. Canadian travel agents formed their own association
At this time in our history, it was easy to make a profit just by booking reservations. Airline tickets were expensive with fares controlled by the government in both the United States and Canada. Commission for air was between seven and 10 per cent. A higher rate applied for tickets connected to a foreign independent tour” (aka FIT).
Commission from hotels, rail, cruises and tours were stable, and provided ample revenue. Basically, prices were high and the cost of operating an agency was relatively low. Almost anyone could make money in the business. That was good news and bad news.
Hobbyists flocked to the industry. Many of the regulations and controls which we have today had not yet been established. Travel agencies were opening everywhere, in big cities and small towns across North America. Combo-businesses appeared including travel agency/hair salons and travel agency/luggage and handbag shops.
TIME TRAVEL TRIVIA: Some travel historians believe this influx of hobbyists contributed to the perception of travel agents as clerical workers rather than professionals. Some employment agencies still classify agents as clerical.
An executive from a typewriter and office machine company called IBM had a conversation with another executive from American Airlines. IBM had been working on ways to commercialize their new computer system yet no one knew how it could be used. It was a solution looking for a problem.
Airline reservations were an expensive, paper-based, error-prone mess. The airline executive saw the potential in IBM’s creation and in 1963 Sabre was launched. In the years that followed, it moved beyond the confines of reservation departments and into travel agencies around the world.
Computers were a new and mysterious device to the average consumer. To capitalize on the progressive image they offered, it became fashionable for travel agents to take on the title of reservationist, or even computer reservationist. With airline tickets representing the largest source of revenue for most agencies at the time, the title made perfect sense.
TIME TRAVEL TRIVIA: : Sabre was not just the first reservation system, it was one of the first large-scale commercial computer networks.
Although signed in 1978 by U.S. President Jimmy Carter, the Airline Deregulation Act took a few years to fully develop. Canadian airlines were deregulated in 1987. Both promised increased competition, more choices, better service, and lower fares.
Ticket prices indeed fell making it feasible for more business people to travel than in the past. Corporate travel exploded and captured the attention of agencies hoping to ride the wave of success. Becoming a corporate travel agent was the hot trend among travel pros of this decade.
During the same decade, in 1985 America Online became the world’s largest provider of a new (to most people) service called the internet! Its impact on travel would not be fully appreciated for several more years.
TIME TRAVEL TRIVIA: Texas International Airlines was the first to offer deep discounted fares. Their so-called “Peanuts Fares” required sitting in the rear of the economy cabin where peanuts were served instead of the usual complimentary full meals.
Following years of declining airfares, increased costs, and multiple bankruptcies, most airlines started on the slow path of commission reductions. By 2002, almost all eliminated commission payments entirely.
On September 11, 2001, the horrific attacks on the World Trade Center in New York grounded all flights in the United States. Beyond the obvious tragedy, there was a near instant collapse of the corporate travel market.
There was also a massive shift back to leisure with the title leisure travel agent becoming the most common title in use. Also, most agencies began charging fees (initially just for air) for the first time since the 1930s.
TIME TRAVEL TRIVIA: On January 9, 2007, the first iPhone was revealed, ushering in the new era of mobile computing. Travel apps continue to be one of the most commonly used and downloaded categories.
These days, most travel pros use the term travel agent in a generic sense, with most preferring travel consultant, travel advisor or something similar. You might say we have returned to our roots.
Many travel agencies today charge at least some type of fee. There’s more to the story, however, than fees alone. With the Internet and mobile travel apps, getting a reservation is simple for even the most tech-challenged traveller. Bookings are the easy part. Getting the right booking in the right resort, in the right destination for a client’s individual desires, is something only a human consultant can provide.
Perhaps this is one reason so many have adopted a title that more accurately reflects the real value they offer. Much like our travel ancestors from the 1920s, they have discovered that advice, guidance, service, support and peace of mind are things that almost everyone wants. Where there is a need or desire, there is a market to be fulfilled.
In 2020, the travel industry worldwide was about to be hit by a tsunami. As COVID-19 spread around the world, airlines were effectively shut down. People were told by their governments to stay home. Hotels and resorts were largely empty and cruise ships were forbidden to operate.
The Canadian government called all Canadians to return to Canada in March 2020, days ago March break holidays were to begin. Travel agents in Canada worked around the clock for weeks to bring customers home and to cancel future trips. It was chaos.
Travel agencies soon went to zero revenue. Or worse – negative.
Travel advisors then spent months trying to get refunds for their customers. Airlines negotiated financial support from the federal government and tour companies went dormant. Thousands were laid off or let go in the travel industry.
After two extremely difficult years, and after losing more than 1,000 travel agents during the pandemic, the industry is now back on its feet and flourishing. Canadians are travelling again in large numbers.
Travel agents are in high demand because after all of the turmoil, customers feel safer working with an agent.
Throughout the entire history of travel in Canada, travel agents have proven to be remarkably resilient, adapting constantly to change, and dealing with every possible crisis and emergency the world can throw at them. Bravo!