Travel agencies may have faded into the background with the advent of online booking (as Tina Fey's 30 Rock character Liz Lemon spoofs when she's asked to join a gang of obsolete employees led by a travel agent), but in the mental maelstrom of the Internet age, bespoke agencies have cropped up to help cut through the heaps of info and create customized itineraries for discerning travelers. We talked to a handful of the agencies we hear the most about to see who they cater to, how they're doing, and, frankly, to get a feel for whether or not travel agents are staging a comeback. What do you think?
At Trufflepig, crafting the perfect trip is a lot like throwing a great dinner party. "We know which 'ingredients' will make it special," says co-founder Charlie Scott. These ingredients—from activities and experiences to hotels and restaurants—come together in what he calls "the finished meal" once clients give Trufflepig some insight into their travel personalities.
Clients contact Trufflepig sometimes with specifics, and sometimes with nothing. "Sometimes they'll just give us a few words: '2 weeks, June, great food,'" says Scott. Once Trufflepig planners go back and forth with the client until they love the plans, they send out the "Trip Piglet"—an itinerary booklet chock-full of travel details and day by day instructions. "We understand who the clients are...if they're restless and need to be busy day to day, or if they're interested in food experiences. That's when we turn to our basket of ingredients."
The metaphorical ingredient basket stays full thanks to the expertise of the three co-founders, all 10-year vets of the luxury travel industry. They choose destinations (from classics to next-big-things) based strictly on the requirement that they know enough about the area to plan a customized trip. "It's a mix of paying attention to what people are asking about and knowing what people should be asking for," explains Scott, who says the Trufflepig team was among the first to cover New Zealand just before it became trendy. "It's the confidence of knowing what you're talking about."
Started by a former Town & Country travel editor, Indagare is staffed by travel-loving members of the magazine industry. That can account for its editorial vibe, encompassing both an in-house travel agency and "robust website," described by Managing Director Eliza Harris as containing millions of words of original content. 22 travelers constantly update the site with in-depth destination reports that wind up in mini-magazines for members called Black Books. "It's seamlessly integrated," says Harris. "There is no distinction between the editorial side and the trip planning side."
The collaborative writing and planning process means that clients can get input from every expert at Indagare. "That way you can actually talk to the person who went there, who wrote the report that you read,'" explains Harris. The staff's weekly brainstorm session keeps them all up-to-date on the best in food, entertainment, and hospitality.
If your tastes run luxurious, Indagare can take you anywhere you'd like to go. "We specialize in high end trips—no matter the destination," says Harris. Memberships to virtually every preferred service program help the staff book the most exclusive and elite reservations. Look out for an upcoming report on traveling in style in Myanmar soon.
Some agents just know what they're good at. Lightfoot Travel bills themselves as "Asia Experts," with a high level of expertise in Southeast Asia, India, and Sri Lanka in particular.
Lightfoot clients—many of whom are expats looking to explore Asia during their two-to-three year work stay—are treated to totally customized service, though the company also plans high-end corporate trips for small groups. Their Designers take a partnership approach to trip planning, working to eliminate many of the stresses of travelling.
"We're real people too," says marketing manager Ying Yi Ho. "We have families as well, we know all about the trials of taking kids on planes and long car journeys." The purpose of Lightfoot, says Ho, is "to help individuals sift through the overload of information" on travel booking sites, adding that their unbiased dedication to choosing the best of the best provides a service not unlike a financial planner's.
If you're on the hunt for help planning a trip in Asia, keep this bonus in mind—Lightfoot doesn't charge a service fee.
Adventurers rejoice—Black Tomato has you covered. "For many of our customers, travel defines them—it is part of their DNA," says Tom Marchant, co-founder. "We put great pride in using our specialist travel knowledge to get people off the beaten track," continues Marchant.
For those with a true thirst for travel, Black Tomato can create a high-end trip that covers both the comfortable and the exotic. Consultants, each representing a continent or region, work with clients to plan diverse and all-inclusive itineraries across the world. Need an example? "A challenging volcano hike in the Chilean Altiplano will be scheduled next to a stay in a luxury spa hotel in San Pedro de Atacama," says Marchant. From beach vacations to mountain treks, Black Tomato promises to squeeze the most out of any free time, long or short.
Marchant is excited to move forward with trips to Sri Lanka in 2013—consultants have been working to form close relationships with guides there to up the adventure quotient.
Photo credit: Vintage compass via Shutterstock