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The evolution of the travel agent

How travel experts are changing to meet the needs of today's connected adventurer

Today's traveler has more information than ever—as we plan our vacations and at our fingertips once we touch down. Destination Approaching is your guide to the innovations helping travelers create authentic and memorable experiences. The series, found here and distributed through the Conde Nast Media Network, celebrates the launch of Chase Sapphire Reserve. With premium travel benefits designed to keep up with the way you travel, this card is your partner in international adventures.

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Travel agent is one of the jobs that is most commonly reported to have been "killed" by the internet. Who needs a travel agent, the thinking goes, when there are dozens of online booking sites allowing travelers to customize their voyages? And who needs a hotel concierge, for that matter, when there are GPS-enabled restaurant-finding apps loaded with user reviews and photos?

But a new generation of travel companies are betting that premium travelers need personalized, local expertise more than ever.

And not without reason: Earlier this year, the American Society of Travel Agents reported that the number of people using travel agents had reached a three-year high. That may be partly thanks to the health of the industry overall. Travel and tourism constituted a growing portion of the world's GDP for six years running, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council, and today accounts for one in 11 jobs worldwide.

In fact, some travel experts believe the success of D.I.Y. travel planning sites serves to underscore the value of old-school travel agencies and concierges,

"Online travel companies have become enormous," says George Morgan-Grenville, the founder of Red Savannah, “and economies of scale are the enemy of the quality travel planner."

Anyone can find gold sinks and infinity pools, Morgan-Grenville says. Harder to locate are the substantive, in-the-know experiences that define today's luxury travel experience. Think: The Tulum hotel that only has one star because the bungalows are simple but where fish tacos are unparalleled on the Yucatan peninsula.

people on a raft

Travel has come a long way since Thomas Cook, of the U.K.'s Thomas Cook Group travel agency, arranged the first publicly advertised chartered excursion in 1841. (It was all of 11 miles by train.) Our smartphones may have replaced some of the traditional duties of the travel agent, but they are sometimes the very thing we hope to escape when we travel. The new class of international travel experts are redefining the role of agents and concierges to meet the needs of today's travelers. That often means using existing technology in unique ways, and creating new, original travel tech that's more human than machine.

Time is precious

Online booking and review sites have made travel planning more accessible, but using them is time-consuming. Busy people may want to outsource decision-making to a trusted, expert individual. Time spent at our destinations is especially priceless. Who wants to search for a nearby restaurant when they could already be seated, taking in their surroundings, and savoring every second of their vacation?

Enter Quintessentially, a global concierge service for the “,” as founder Jacob Zucker puts it. Quintessentially's 6,000 local experts around the world work to meet members' individual needs, no matter where they find themselves.

Say Quintessentially notices you're in New York. They will send you a message unprompted, Zucker says.

"'We see you are in Manhattan, and know you love theater: May I book you tickets to this off-Broadway show that is getting rave reviews?'"

Today's concierge can make you aware of the things you didn't even know you should be looking for.

Experience is everything

In addition to saving time, the new travel professionals facilitate authentic and singular experiences. "The growth of the travel industry overall is a sign that people are placing greater importance on experience over things," says Meghan Furse, the founder of trip-planning site Joyage. And it takes individual, local expertise to make sure you're getting the real deal: the artisan handicrafts and the family restaurant that's been owned through multiple generations, not the mass-produced tourist knockoffs.

For some travelers, authentic experience means unprecedented, VIP moments. While planning a musician's trip to St. Petersburg, Anne Scully, the president of Virginia-based McCabe World Travel, was able to secure a session on the famed composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's piano—even though his apartment is now a museum.

On its blog, Quintessially boasts about the "unusual" member requests it has met: sold-out Sting tickets, a James Bond-style car chase in an Aston Martin in Dubai, even an uninhabited island. In many cases, it's the individual travel specialists who are defining the cutting edge of travel.

Best of both worlds

Even the most traditional travel agents agree that technology is essential to keeping up with travel trends and creating smooth experiences. Some agents are partnering with apps that offer itinerary management or bag packing and laundry for their clients.

At the same time, many of the tech companies blamed for the demise of travel agencies are now looking to make their user experience more like calling up a travel agent or concierge. Some are using Tinder-style technology to introduce travelers to friends-of-friends or likeminded strangers who can serve as local experts.

Paul English, the founder of travel booking giant Kayak, is now working on a new app that will use artificial intelligence-powered text messages to make searching for flights feel more like talking to a real life travel agent. Indeed, the man whose site is often accused of 'killing' the travel agent doesn't need to be convinced of the value of personalized and authentic travel expertise—especially when it comes with a high-tech touch. "The best travel agents are invaluable in crafting the perfect overall trip for you," says English, "particularly if it is to a location you've never been to before, or, if you want to book a business trip quickly."

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