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Posted January 30, 2013 | comments Leave a comment

Travel agencies still have a niche in a cyber world

By Sally Voth

Ginny Leser and Ben Verstrat of Main Street Travel in Front Royal can offer travelers something the Internet cannot -- personal service.

After working as director of admissions at Wakefield Country Day School in Flint Hill, Leser started working at Passages Travel, also in Front Royal, about five years ago.

"I hadn't had a lot of interest in it, but once I started working in it, it was just one of those things that I think catches you off guard," Leser said of her travel passion. "I really do like the idea of traveling and cultures. I'm more of an armchair traveler than an actual traveler, but I love listening to everyone else tell stories about places they've been and things they've done."

Verstrat was living in Maine and working as a travel consolidator when he first did business with Leser.

"He was my go-to guy for everything Europe, especially air, and I was always calling him and then I was calling him everyday," she said.

Verstrat added, "And emailing me every 10 minutes."

As an independent contractor with Passages as her host agency, Leser was building a large clientele. She and Verstrat talked about going into business together, and while visiting Front Royal, he fell in love with the town.

"We started walking down Main Street, and there was a store front," Leser said.

They signed a three-year lease for their 126 E. Main St., location, and opened their business in September.

"It's been a great, great move," Leser said. "You just can't predict what the future will hold. But, as it turned out, people have found us, and there's such a need for help with travel.

"Everyone gets on the Internet and does their research, but when it comes right down to making that last decision whether or not to put that credit card in and hit that submit button, it becomes a whole different world."

Verstrat added, "A lot of people like the personal attention by dealing with a travel agent."

He said a big hurdle for travelers looking to book a big trip on their own is having to put it together piecemeal. They might have to go through various sites to book a hotel and a couple of different flights.

Leser said they also tell their clients that "we're available 24/7."

"If they run a car into a rock wall in Italy, they can pick up the phone and call us, and we will take care of it," she said.

"Sometimes, we will get calls from our clients who are on different continents. They will just be calling to tell us they're having the best time."

Potential clients might also be surprised by Main Street Travel's prices.

"A lot of the time, too, the price they see on the Internet is the price we're going to charge," Verstrat said.

Sometimes, the duo can get customers an even better price, they said.

"It doesn't cost anything to use a travel agent," Leser said. "We're paid by all of our vendors. We work on commission and they pay us. We're asked all the time by new clients, 'How much does it cost for your service?' It doesn't. We're already paid."

The only exception is when it comes to, say, a 19-day trip that the company has to put together from scratch; then there is a fee.

Another advantage of using a travel agency, according to Verstrat and Leser, is it often has more clout to score travelers upgrades and extras.

Main Street Travel offers the gamut of travel experiences.

"We do everything from renting a car from Front Royal to go to Washington D.C. if you need a car, or flying from here to Australia," Verstrat said.

Leser said they're taking online courses to learn more about accessible travel, something they want to offer more of.

Books and movies can influence where people decide to vacation. Italy was big last summer, Leser said.

"With the "Twilight" movies, all of a sudden I had a supply of people that wanted to go out to Washington state because they wanted to be around where Bella lived," she said.

Verstrat agreed.

"Believe it or not, it does make a difference with books, movies," he said. "Anything that people read, they want to actually visit so they can put themselves there."

And, despite the economy, people still want to go places, Verstrat and his partner agree.

"Everyody's traveling," he said. "Everybody wants to travel. The people that know they can use an agency and not have to pay extra money for the service love it."

Besides giving people an idea of what their trips will cost -- and avoiding sticker shock when they do come into the agency -- the Internet helps whet their appetites.

"What we tend to find is it makes people excited," Leser said. "They're coming in. They're using the Internet for knowledge and research."

Something that many clients find helpful is Main Street Travel can take payments -- although they cannot do that on flight costs.

"Planning with a travel agent for a big trip, if you plan it and you're not going for six or 12 months or something, we take payments so you're not having to come up with all that money [at once]," Leser said.

Mary June "MJ" Williams, who owns Alpha Voyages Inc. in Winchester, agrees that the travel agency business is still a thriving one in this information age.

"We're busier than ever," she said. "The Internet is loaded with information and it confuses people...They want to know that...they're choosing reliable vendors and that their vacation is going to go smoothly."

Add in confusing airport rules, and a knowledgeable travel consultant is a godsend, according to Williams.

"We really do not charge a fee for packages," she said. "We do charge a fee if we're booking just straight air.

"We're in the business because people need us."

Williams has worked hard to build her online presence. She operates her office out of her house, and offers private appointments every day.

"I'm the closest there is to a storefront [travel agency] in Winchester," Williams said.

Main Street Travel can be reached at 540 636-1634, or can be found on Facebook. Alpha Voyages can be reached at 540-662-6279, or at www.avi.travel.

Contact staff writer Sally Voth at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or svoth@nvdaily.com


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