Anyone can book a flight, but not everyone is a travel agent.
When the Kent Senior Center wanted to organize a tour near the Seattle Mariners’ spring training facility in Phoenix, the facility’s staff didn’t head online. They called Sally Goodgion, owner of Catalyst Travel in Kent.
The first spring training tour she planned in 1990 went off without a hitch, and it’s become an annual part of her business. It’s also one of the reasons she still has a job.
“I really specialize in senior tours and groups and reunions, and that’s what keeps me in business. Most of that, you can’t do on the Internet,” Goodgion said.
“I think specializing in groups has been an important thing for me. From the beginning, I did groups.”
Goodgion, who joined the industry 30 years ago, is one of the few remaining small agencies — not just in the region, but across the country.
Around the time Goodgion began her own company 13 years ago, another local agent was selling hers to a bigger company.
In 2004, Kim Johnston sold her family-owned agency to travel consortium Travel Leaders, which was then known as Carlson Wagonlit Travel Associates.
For Johnston, competing with the Internet was one reason she decided to sell.
“You need to have the backing of a larger travel agency,” she explained. “You get bigger discounts. You have more amenities. You’re better off being associated with a larger travel consortium.”
The Internet was a competitor from the get-go for Catalyst Travel, too.
Goodgion, though, said she’s been able to stay independent by working from home to keep costs down and having a loyal clientele who followed her from other agencies.
And for Goodgion, like Johnston, having a niche and continually traveling to develop her area of expertise has contributed to her success and helped her stay competitive with the Internet.
“[Traveling is] the most important thing you can do as a travel agent,” Goodgion said. “I take advantage of as many different opportunities to go to places that I have not been, and I read all the time. I kind of live and breathe my work.”
The same can be said for Johnston, who’s gone on a cruise, visited Costa Rica and traveled to New Zealand and Australia this year.
“I have firsthand knowledge of these destinations,” said Johnston, who specializes in luxury and European travel. “I’ve done extensive travel. If I had personally not been to a destination, there’s somebody within my company who has. We know the hotels. We know the properties. We know the tourist destinations.”
As with specialization, ongoing training is a new facet of the industry, something Johnston’s company offers to keep its agents competitive.
“At one point in time, travel agents were ticket agents,” Johnston said. “We had to evolve into something much more specialized, and now travel agents take travel to an entirely different level. We do transfers and tours, so it’s much more complicated the work we do now than purchasing a simple airline ticket.”