Obama Wasn't Wrong

"When was the last time somebody went to a bank teller instead of using an ATM or used a travel agent instead of going online? A lot of jobs that used to require people now have become automated." President Obama last week uttered those words to illustrate how automation and corporate efficiency have complicated job growth. It seemed fair and accurate to me. But to the American Society of Travel Agents, Travel Leaders and others, it was an attack on the industry.

The only problem: Obama was right, or at least he said nothing wrong.

In a response to the president, ASTA noted that the travel agency industry is "alive and well," that it provides full-time employment "for more than 120,000 U.S. taxpayers" and that travel agencies book 50 percent of all U.S. travel. Sure sounds thriving to me. But as I looked closer at the numbers, I found a profession beset by dramatic job losses and characterized by increased automation.

When I first read ASTA's rebuttal, I thought the association was claiming there are 120,000 travel agents working in the United States. I was wrong. But I'm in good company. Even Travel Leaders Group CEO Barry Liben had that impression, as he referred to "more than 100,000 taxpaying travel agents" in his own response to Obama. Asked where the number came from, a Travel Leaders spokesperson pointed me back to ASTA.

ASTA noted the 120,000 figure represents employment in the "travel agency industry," is derived from 2007 Census data and "includes all employees not just those designated as a travel agent," according to an ASTA official.

The problem is, Obama was talking about travel agents--not the IT department at Orbitz or the CEO of Tzell or the janitor who cleans the cubicles at American Express headquarters.

The real number of employed travel agents in the United States is probably closer to 70,930, based on the most recent estimates from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics for May 2010. That's down nearly 43 percent from 124,030 in 2000. While the job market has been awful, it's been particularly bad for travel agents.

Even if the broader industry is "alive and well," as ASTA suggests, agents haven't been so fortunate. Unless you want to argue that 53,000 lost jobs in ten years isn't "a lot," then the labor figures would seem to support Obama's assessment.

In its reply to Obama, ASTA also noted that the U.S. travel agency industry represents "50 percent of all travel sold." Again, Obama said nothing of the industry, but rather the trend of travel purchasers going online instead of through agents. As many know, online bookings and travel agency bookings aren't mutually exclusive. After all, Orbitz, Expedia and Travelocity are travel agencies, and such players are included in ASTA's 50 percent figure, according to its data source, a 2008 PhoCusWright study.

A PhoCusWright study released late last year, however, found travel agencies, not including the online players, sold 30 percent of all U.S. travel in 2009. The percentage of offline transactions is even lower when you consider that figure also included "online sales by corporate travel agencies," or about half of all corporate bookings, according to PhoCusWright. It's hard to argue that online booking growth hasn't chipped away at travel agent jobs--perhaps in a fashion similar to ATMs chipping away at bank teller jobs. They're not gone, but they sure aren't growing.

Before sending me hate mail, I do want to make one thing clear: I agree with ASTA and others that there remains a general misunderstanding of travel agents. To be sure, they are not obsolete transaction processors, but rather knowledgeable, consultative service providers. Obama certainly didn't help overturn the myth.

However, I would argue that the old, transaction-based role of the travel agent has indeed become automated--not obsolete or defunct or dead--but automated, and increasingly so. With that, the profession has evolved. Travel agents are consultants, lifelines and, as ASTA pointed out, tax-paying professionals. They ease disruptions for road warriors, create memories for vacationers and serve customers in ways computers cannot. As Travel Leaders' Liben noted, they lend "the human touch."

Still, the sad truth remains: There are far fewer of them than there were. If the trend of the past decade continues, there will be fewer still. Obama seems to get that, while the association that represents travel agents--or at least the ones with jobs--ignored it.