Travel Notes: Travel agents say they're not obsolete

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The digital revolution has imperiled the future of many job categories, including darkroom film processor, typewriter repairman and telephone operator.

With the surge of sophisticated travel websites, can we include travel agents on the list of nearly obsolete jobs?

As you might expect, the American Society of Travel Agents doesn't think so. The trade group that represents more than 5,900 travel agents and travel firms rejects the notion that travel websites will eventually put warmhearted agents out of work.

The trade group was again defending its profession last week after the job search site CareerCast.com listed travel agents among "useless jobs" that are becoming increasingly obsolete.

The list also included data entry, sign spinning and shoe repair.

Paul Ruden, senior vice president of the trade group, called the CareerCast list insulting and inaccurate.

Although travel agents in brick-and-mortar offices handle only about 25 to 30 percent of air travel bookings, he said most agents focus primarily on booking complex trips, such as corporate travel or cruises and tours.

"Travel agents are alive and well and they do a robust business by providing expertise and advice to millions of travelers every year, using a combination of new and old technologies," Mr. Ruden said in a letter to CareerCast.com.

Future room rates

Travel booking sites have become so sophisticated that some say they can save you money by predicting future prices.

Bing.com and Kayak.com, for example, offer price-predicting features that forecast the fares of airline tickets in the near future.

The latest travel site to offer soothsaying powers is TheSuitest.com, a hotel booking site that includes "The Hotel Time Machine." Once you pick a room, the feature tells you the chances that the rates will rise or fall within the next 30 days and the likelihood that the hotel will sell out.

"We developed this so people would have an idea of whether they can save money by booking now or waiting to book in the future," said Jeremy Murphy, a former analyst at Goldman Sachs, who founded the website with Michael Aucoin, a former senior engineer at Microsoft.

The website uses 10,000 pricing models, plus past rate trends and real-time information to estimate rates of individual hotel rooms, he said.

The website's predictions are not a guarantee and Mr. Murphy won't refund your money if you pay too much based on a faulty prediction.

"We are not making a definitive statement because we don't literally have a crystal ball where we can see the future," he added.

Tightened cockpit security

A bill awaiting congressional approval is reviving the ghosts of Sept. 11.

Commercial airlines would be required to install a secondary barrier to protect the cockpit under legislation introduced by Rep. Michael G. Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., and supported by Ellen Saracini, the widow of Victor Saracini, one of the pilots killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

After the deadly attacks, the Federal Aviation Administration required commercial airlines to install one locking door between the cabin and the cockpit.

The new bill suggests that planes are momentarily vulnerable when a pilot unlocks the door to use the restroom in the main cabin. Mr. Fitzpatrick's bill was referred to a congressional subcommittee in April, with no hearing date scheduled.

The debate over the barriers has grown heated, with federal law enforcement groups supporting the bill and the airline industry criticizing it for costing millions of dollars.

"We believe individual carriers should be able to make the determination," said Jean Medina, a spokeswoman for Airlines for America, the trade group for the country's airlines.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, Congress set aside $100 million to help air carriers pay the estimated $12,000 to $17,000 cost of installing each cockpit door. Mr. Fitzpatrick's bill does not offer government funding for the second barrier.

The Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, which includes federal air marshals, endorsed the legislation.

"The best security is a layered approach, and the more layers, the better," said Don Mihalek, a spokesman for the law enforcement group.

He dismissed the airlines' complaint that the doors are mandated without funding.

"The only mandate the airlines should be primarily concerned with is the terrorists', which is to kill as many Americans as they can, no matter the cost," Mr. Mihalek said.

Hotel reviews

If you see a hotel with only a handful of online reviews, you might not be getting the full picture.

A study by Spanish professors published by Cornell University found that initial online hotel reviews tend to be more negative and that the overall evaluations improve as the number of opinions increases.

Online reviews are crucial for hotels because research shows they are usually more effective than traditional marketing such as print, radio and TV ads.

The study, based on sample reviews of 16,680 hotels, found that when a hotel has only 11 to 20 reviews, an average of 23 percent of them rate the hotel as terrible or poor. But when a hotel has more than 101 reviews, only about 13 percent of them rate the hotel terrible or poor, the study showed.

Kelsey Blodget, editorial director at the hotel review site Oyster.com, said there are two probable reasons for the trend.

"If the earliest reviews are posted when the hotel is brand-new, it could just be because new hotels usually have some kinks to work out before they get things running smoothly," she said. "It could also be that those with negative things to say are the most eager to voice their opinions and are more likely to be 'first responders.' "

Hotels retooling food service

Penny-pinching travelers are spending less on food and drinks, and some hotels are responding by putting an end to conventional room service. Others are working even harder to entice their guests' taste buds.

New York Hilton Midtown, the biggest hotel in New York City with nearly 2,000 rooms, announced plans to eliminate room service starting this summer. In its place, the hotel will offer a cafeteria-type restaurant where guests can grab quick meals like pizza and sandwiches.

"Hotels are thinking of retooling to make the food offerings more limited," said Bruce Baltin, senior vice president at hospitality consulting firm PKF Consulting.

Spending reports show that room rates have been edging up in the past year and are on track in 2013 to eclipse pre-recession prices. But spending on food, drinks and other hotel extras has not kept pace.

A new PKF report showed that room revenue from 2011-12 increased 6.3 percent while income from food, drinks and other hotel services edged up only 2.3 percent.

In Southern California, several hotels are responding by offering new choices to get guests to spend.

At the Luxe City Center Hotel in Los Angeles, plans are in the works to offer guests quick on-the-go drinks and meals, like steel-cut oats for breakfast, before the end of the year.

"Since people are on the move all the time, that is where those quick grab-and-go options work," general manager Tom Xavier said.

He said the hotel is also considering including in its regular room service menu many of the signature dishes served at the new lobby restaurant.

"We are still playing with what we want to do with room service."

Party flight to Vegas

Travelers flying to Las Vegas don't wait until they touch the ground to start their reveling.

On the way to Sin City, the average planeload of passengers spends a total of $116 for liquor, beer, wine and soda, surpassing drink sales to any other destination in the lower 48 states, according to statistics released by GuestLogix, a company that specializes in onboard merchandising for the airline industry.

Travelers flying to cities in Hawaii and Alaska spend the most of any U.S. destination, but that is because it often takes a long-haul flight to get to those cities.

Brett Proud, chief executive of GuestLogix, said the spending patterns for travelers to Vegas are unsurprising.

"Everybody going to Vegas has a party mind-set," he explained.

Spending on drinks drops significantly for travelers leaving Las Vegas, Mr. Proud added.

For all destinations, the biggest days of the week for buying drinks are Thursdays and Fridays, when the average plane load spends $67 and $66 per flight, respectively, according to Guest-Logix's statistics for May. Of those sales, about 99 percent are for the purchase of liquor, beer and wine.

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