‘Tire kickers’ using free information to make reservations online


EDMONTON – Travel agents frustrated by spending hours on research for people who then book trips themselves online are trying to eliminate “tire kickers” by charging consulting fees.

“People were coming in to probe for information with no intention of booking their trip with us,” said Travel With Us owner Francis da Silva, who charges new clients $50.

“The bottom line is, they weren’t paying for the service.”

This is the busiest travel time of the year in Alberta, where people are anxious to swap the winter cold for a week or two of tropical sunshine.

The popularity of online do-it-yourself travel websites allows travellers to book everything from flights to hotels to car rentals.

Sometimes the savings are nominal, sometimes significant. Either way, it has changed the competitive nature of the travel industry.

Consulting charges — called look-to-book fees by many travel agents — are a growing trend in the industry, said Christiane Theberge, president and CEO of the Association of Canadian Travel Agents.

“We know people do shop more and more on the Internet for all kinds of services, so it’s an issue for us,” she said.

“More agencies are charging the consulting fee to anyone coming in the door, to determine if they’re serious and not just looking for free information.”

Da Silva accepts that some travellers book online, but he has a problem with people who first exploit travel agencies for information, taking time away from paying clients.

Like a growing number of agents, he started asking new clients for money up front to be applied to the cost of a trip if one is booked, but is non-refundable if not. Fees can range from $50 to $100.

Lesley Paull, of Paull Travel, said the fees are simply good business.

“If you’re not charging it, you should be,” Paull said.

“A travel agency is like any other profession or service industry. You can only get a certain amount of information for free from lawyers or accountants. I don’t think travel agencies are any different.

“Our business is very labour intensive. We don’t have extra hours in a day to spend looking for information for someone who’s not serious.”

Theberge said the fees are common among larger agencies, but less so at smaller ones, which are hesitant about alienating potential clients.

Audrey Edwards counts herself among the latter.

“I hate to have to do it, I really do,” said Edwards, who owns Algonquin Travel in Sherwood Park Mall.

But the problem of wasted time has become common in the past year, she said.

Recently, a woman came to her office to book a Mediterranean cruise and one of her agents spent three hours arranging the complicated details.

“After the woman got the information, she booked online,” Edwards said.

In a service industry which relies on repeat business, many agents hesitate to question or confront clients, she said.

Theberge said agents can often meet or beat online deals if they get the chance. They also keep clients up to date about travel arrangements, especially flight times, which change often.

Most important is accountability, especially if something goes wrong, Theberge said.

“There are people who have had awful experiences booking online, which can be a very anonymous kind of process.

“What happens if you get stranded? Who do you talk to if you have a bad experience?”