Whether they're planning to travel to Italy, Tibet or Argentina, Larry and Bonnie Ohler call Lynda Maxwell first.
Maxwell, the owner of Destinations Inc. travel agency, has been helping the Ellicott City couple plan vacations for years — booking tours, coordinating airport pickups, finding hotels and handling a myriad of other details. The Ohlers say they sometimes book parts of trips themselves, but not without Maxwell orchestrating it all from her office in Ellicott City.
"We like the comfort of knowing someone who knows what they're doing is working for us," said Bonnie Ohler, who is retired.
Besides, added Larry, an accountant: "I can never ever get really final answers online."
To some, they might seem relics of another era. And to be sure, the industry has struggled through what has likely been its most challenging decade yet, from the rise of the Internet and consumer-friendly websites such as Travelocity and Expedia through the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to the elimination of airline commissions and the recession.
But those travel agents who have survived — many by focusing on business, group and niche travelers — say demand for their services is on the rise.
"What you might hear is that travel agencies are dead, and oftentimes people think that," said Jay Ellenby, president and chief executive officer of Safe Harbors Travel Group, a Baltimore agency. "We're far from it, though the industry has decreased significantly. But we often find ourselves reinventing ourselves."
Agents and industry analysts say a growing number of consumers are relying on professionals to wade through information, sort out conflicting price offers, plan customized travel, keep abreast of changing conditions and even step in as intermediaries when trips go wrong.
"The trend has been people are going back to travel professionals because you can't always believe the pictures you see online," said Denver agency owner Chris Russo, president of the American Society of Travel Agents. "It's gone hand-in-hand with the economy. People are a little more cautious. In a bad economy, people want to make sure their money is in a good place."
After struggling through a recession that cut into both business and leisure travel, agents nationwide say they're starting to see an uptick in business — thanks in part to pent-up demand.
About half of the leisure-based travel agencies surveyed by the American Society of Travel Agents in February said sales and transactions increased last year compared with 2009. Ninety-four percent of the agencies said they expect to make a profit this year.
The Airlines Reporting Corp., which handles transactions between airlines and travel agencies, said the value of airline tickets sold by U.S. travel agencies rose more than 8 percent in the first four months of 2011 compared with the same period last year. The value of sales is up 31 percent compared to the same four-month period in 2009.
Some local agents said they are seeing an uptick in business as well. Maxwell said business so far this year is up 20 percent compared with the same period last year.
Ellenby, of Safe Harbors, said corporate travel business took a hit over the last few years but began to improve by the end of last year. Sales at his business jumped 13 percent in the first quarter of the year compared with the first three months of 2010, he said.
Some of that came from growth in humanitarian and missionary travel business. He has helped send groups or individuals to Haiti, Africa, Latin America and Japan.
"That business was very, very strong over the past few years … and that covered for our decreases," Ellenby said.
Change has forced many travel agents out of business. But after a decade of decline, says Kristina Rundquist, a spokeswoman for the American Society of Travel Agents, the number of firms is leveling off.
Among the survivors, some agents who worked out of storefronts were forced to slash overhead and work from home or virtual locations. When airlines completed their decade-long phase-out of commissions in 2006, many agencies were forced to reconfigure business models.
Some added new consulting fees or began specializing in a particular travel niche. By 2009, the American Society of Travel Agents reports, roughly 41 percent of agencies were charging consultation fees for custom travel.
The proportion of agencies that charge service fees for bookings had grown to 91 percent by 2009, the society reported. The fee for a domestic or international air booking averaged in the upper $30 range.
Some agencies have focused on specialized markets.
"They saw this as a way to differentiate themselves from competitors and build business," Rundquist said.
Niches include humanitarian travel, destination weddings, family reunion trips, adventure travel, and medical travel — scheduling elective surgery that can be performed more cheaply outside the U.S., even taking into account the cost of travel.
Roeder Travel consultant Sherry High says business at the Cockeysville agency has remained steady over the past couple of years thanks in part to the "FIT" clients — those who book "foreign independent travel."
"People come to us desiring packages or several cities or destinations they want to go to," High said. "I've done an all-inclusive package for a honeymoon, a family reunion by train, some cruises and bus trips to New York."
Agents said the Internet has changed the way they do business, but not necessarily hurt it.
"Clients will say they saw this or that on the Internet," High said. "They come in knowing a little more about the destination and where they want to go, and that can make it easier for us. Clients are using the Internet to determine where they want to go, but they're more than willing to let us do all the legwork to take care of the details."
Larry D. Swerdlin, owner of Burton Travel in Owings Mills, said an agent's knowledge, experience and contacts can add value for clients.
"They need somebody like me to separate the wheat from the chaff," he said. "We need to get back to the idea that we're here to make the experience better for you, to make it easy for you to help you figure out what's going on and get you to the right destination and the right experience at the best possible price."