Mike, Mollie and Susie Fitzgerald of Frontiers Travel have developed a niche clientele for their Gibsonia travel agency.
By Kim Lyons / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Even before Susie Fitzgerald and her late husband Michael started travel agency Frontiers International Travel, the couple loved to travel — often planning family vacations with their two young children in tow.
But on a fishing excursion many years past, Mrs. Fitzgerald realized she was missing something that put a damper on the vacation for her.
"We had neglected to buy me a fishing license," she recalled. "So when we got out there, the guide would not even let me touch the fishing rod."
That helped inspire the mission behind Gibsonia-based Frontiers Travel. "We want people to be prepared on every trip, to make sure they get that personal touch," Mrs. Fitzgerald said.
To be sure, the Internet has changed the way travel agents do business. Travelers can plan and book travel entirely online if they choose, and even compare bargains before booking.
While the American Society of Travel Agents claims that 85 percent of cruises, 70 percent of tours and packages, and 50 percent of airline tickets are purchased via travel agents, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has a somewhat gloomier outlook. Employment of travel agents is expected to decline 12 percent by 2022, according to the BLS.
But Mike Fitzgerald, Susie's son and the president of Frontiers Travel, said the Internet has not been the devastating blow that many imagine, at least not for them.
"The Internet has brought us more educated customers," he said. "Most have done a little research online, and this usually helps us close the sale more quickly when they call."
And Frontiers, which the Fitzgeralds opened in 1969 and now has 64 employees, had begun carving out a niche client base well before the advent of the Internet. The latest BLS employment outlook suggests that travel agents who specialize in specific destinations or certain kinds of travelers will fare better than those who do not.
"Really, the term 'travel agent' is almost obsolete," said Mollie Fitzgerald, Susie's daughter, and Frontiers co-owner. "We've become more like travel consultants.
"We all know everyone is wise about Internet booking, and buying online, but for the longer-haul, more complex itineraries, people really want to spend their money and time more wisely."
Frontiers has been specializing in sporting, fishing and safari programs for years. Between 1972 and 1976, the company sent more than 1,500 people to southern Africa for flying safaris. Its Elegant Journeys department handles luxury trips to destinations around the world, including South America, the South Pacific, Africa, Europe.
The average per-person cost for a trip planned by Frontiers ranges from $7,000 to $10,000.
The focus on higher-end clients has paid off: Gross sales for the company in 2013 were just under $39 million. The Elegant Journeys department has seen the most significant growth, marking nearly half of Frontiers' commissions last year.
One of the first things clients ask when planning a trip to a new place: "Have you been there?" Mollie Fitzgerald said.
Chances are, they have.
"We call it familiarization travel. We spend a lot of time doing this kind of research, comparing 12 different lodges in the same location so we know what the differences are."
Her most recent business sojourn had her in Rome in December for a trade show. "I met with each and every guide we use, to get as much information as possible: 'Is the gym in this hotel open 24 hours?' — those kinds of minutiae. All those little things that come up whenever people are traveling."
Mr. Fitzgerald said Frontiers clients often try one sporting package, either a shooting or fishing trip, and then get the thirst to try another. Frontiers has a staff member exploring heli-skiing trips — off-trail skiing accessed via helicopter instead of a ski lift — for which the company is seeing a lot of demand.
"We try to hone in on what clients' interests are, and what's really important for them," he said. "For the money people spend on vacations, booking the cheapest option doesn't always provide the best experience. We get to know what our clients want, and design the itinerary that works best for them."
Kim Lyons: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1241. Twitter: @SocialKimly.
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