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Have a Niche Trip

Today's travel agents can give you the inside track on custom-designed vacations.

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Mixed-media artist Ann Baird is adamant that she and her husband, Iain, are not group travel people: "We don't do groups." She says this even though she has two group trips booked this year: a wine trip to Chile and a yachting tour of Greece. "I say, "I don't do groups, either,'" says Annie Schroeder, the travel agent — and owner of New Orleans' Freedom Tour company — who is organizing the Bairds' two vacations. Schroeder's approach to attracting travelers like Baird is carving an intimate, well-connected niche in each of the areas where she travels. In Chile, she has arranged for a small group to stay in a hotel and have a local guide take them through regional wineries. The yacht in Greece will be more like a floating inn than a ship of thousands.

As discount web travel companies like Expedia and Travelocity have given consumers cut-rate prices, a host of options and the freedom to book their own trips, local travel agents have watched their job descriptions change from catchall bookers of hotels and flights to providers of individualized experiences.

'You can go book it all online yourself," says Schroeder. But then again, "you could make your own bread too," she adds. According to Schroeder and other travel agents, their service is one of both convenience and resources. "You can book a trip to Rome. But can you go to Rome and do a cooking experience?"

'Part of [Schroeder's] philosophy is not to travel till you drop, but to find someplace that is so interesting you can stay," says Baird, explaining her affinity for group trips with Schroeder. "There's never a feeling there's a mass of people you have to move with."

'The first trip I went on was a painting trip to Portugal," says Baird, who has been booking group trips with Schroeder for the past 10 years. "It was all artists, and we were painting or sketching the whole trip." She so enjoyed the trip, she has returned with the same tour in subsequent years.

Still, Baird doesn't book travel exclusively through Schroeder. With family friends, she has personally orchestrated trips to Vietnam, Cambodia and India.

You might ask: If she can arrange that kind of travel by herself, why use a travel agent at all?

Expedia vs. Experience

'Annie provides everything you want or need without anything you don't need," explains Baird. "In Portugal, we were invited to homes for high tea; it's always nice to have inroads," she says. Experiences like that require connections to a real insider who can provide an entrance to the local culture.

Besides, says Baird, "we [could have] planned it all ourselves, but that takes a lot more work."

'Nine times out of ten, whatever we're selling people, we've been there," says Chuck Brown, owner of the Cruise and Vacation Shoppe in Metairie. "They basically come to us because they want an expert opinion." He says he regularly helps clients who have done research online but want a professional to make sure the trip is reasonable and to actually book it. "The more complex and expensive a trip is, the more chances for a mistake or a financial loss," says Brown, adding that a travel agent can often finesse unforeseen obstacles, re-book cancelled flights, or fix other mishaps in ways that Internet sites cannot. "I'm the owner. You can call me and talk about travel," says Brown. "Try and get Expedia's president on the phone."

Developing a relationship with a travel agent is also a matter of trust. "You don't know who has written those things you read online," cautions Cheryl Hudak, president of the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA), and owner of Travel Dimensions in Boardman, Ohio. Like other product review forums, pay-per-post bloggers have infiltrated travel sites. Hudak has had to redirect travel plans of customers who came in after searching the Internet with an itinerary based on web reviews and travel site photos of what appeared to be luxurious beachfront resorts.

'We explain, "Well, we've been there and can say there's a four-lane highway between the hotel and the beach,'" says Hudak.

Karen Wild of Lagniappe Travel Services here in New Orleans agrees. "There's not a bad picture on the Internet — everything's great," she says. "They don't say, "Hey, we're in a red light district!'"

Relative Costs

According to other representatives of ASTA, booking with travel agents costs about as much — and often less — than booking as an individual, especially if the agent has specialized in certain kinds of travel. Air, hotel and other travel vendors still sell to agents for less.

'They're able to put in more aggressive pricing structures for the agent to sell," says ASTA regional president Jay Ellenby, making the agent fees invisible to the client. Those savings are encouraging more families to travel with many people, kids included.

'I think you can go anywhere you want with children," says Schroeder, "maybe you don't want to take a 14-hour flight to China with a baby but parents are exposing their children to a broader range of experiences."

'Sometimes it's cheaper to take the teenage kid down the street, too," she says, adding that a built-in babysitter can help alleviate the stress of negotiating adult and child time while you travel. The relative affordability that allows parents to bring a sitter on international travel has also influenced the way consumers understand luxury in travel.

'What has changed in 30 years is who can afford to take a luxury vacation," says Brown. "And by "luxury,' I mean anything that goes to another country. When I was in high school, nobody thought to take a cruise for a senior trip."

Where in the world ...

With foreign destinations so easily acessible, Brown and Schroeder find more clients seeking access to exotic experiences, not just far-flung geography. Brown has sent travelers sailing on schooners along the coast of Maine, yachting through Alaskan bays, river cruising on the Yangtze in China and floating a barge down the Rhone. "People want to get closer to the fjords, closer to the glaciers, closer to the wildlife," Brown says.

At the same time, the old standby of the western Caribbean — Mexico, Aruba, St. Thomas and nearby islands — is still a good deal.

'The Norwegian that sails out of New Orleans is a 7-day trip to the Caribbean — it's a great bargain," Brown says. The line offers interior rooms on weeklong trips for close to $500. The slightly shorter Carnival Cruise trips sail from the same port starting at $300. "You can't go to the French Quarter to Le Petit Theatre and dinner with a date for less than $300," says Brown. "Anybody that has a job can afford to go on a Carnival Cruise out of New Orleans."

Local travel agents don't always send clients out of the country for a vacation. They know Gulf Coast weekend travel is popular with locals and offers more than casinos and beaches. When it comes to local domestic travel, says Wild, "a lot of people from New Orleans go to Mississippi just to gamble, but there's so much more." Family-friendly hiking and camping trips are increasingly popular getaways along the Gulf Coast.

Nicole Learson, marketing director of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau, has seen a marked increase in nature tourists along the coast. From amateur ornithology to water sports, there's something for all walks of outdoorsman. "Kayaking or canoeing the Wolf River, or even kayaking on the Mississippi Sound is really great," says Learson. "So is taking an eco-tour along the Pascagoula River. It's the largest unspoiled river basin in the U.S."

'Within the last couple of years, as we've had to figure out what our tourism product was, because so much was damaged by the storm, we realized, "my goodness, we have a lot of natural resources here,'" says Learson.

For a different spin on local adventure travel, "one of my biggest sellers is the Myrtles Plantation," says Wild. That's the St. Francisville plantation-turned-inn with a reputation for lodging ghostly guests along with corporeal weekenders. "People love to go to the most haunted plantation in the U.S., drive out on a Friday, maybe see some ghosts, and come home on a Sunday," says Wild with a chuckle. "Wherever they go, we can help them get tickets to the sports games or dinner reservations in Italy."

Cruising the Aegean in Greece
  • Cruising the Aegean in Greece
Hiking in the DeSoto National Forest on the Mississippi Gulf Coast - MISSISSIPPI GULF COAST CVB
  • Mississippi Gulf Coast CVB
  • Hiking in the DeSoto National Forest on the Mississippi Gulf Coast
Iain Baird at a cooking class in Florence.
  • Iain Baird at a cooking class in Florence.

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