In Hong Kong and mainland China, bricks-and-mortar travel agencies — an almost obsolete business in some other parts of the world — are the reigning gatekeepers of travel. The reasons: China hasn’t caught up to booking flights and hotel rooms on the web, and Asian customers still want and expect the level of service that travel agents provide.
“Asian people still hold guanxi [personal relationships] with high regard,” says Michelle Cheung, a Shanghai resident who travels frequently to Hong Kong; she has a travel agent in each city. “My parents have been using the same travel agent for 20 years….The good travel agents can find you a flight even when it says it’s sold out online, and when you are making changes mid-trip, it’s easier to just reach a person over the phone.”
All it takes is one bad experience on a website for someone to switch to an agency, says Ms. Cheung. “During Chinese New Year, many of the fares posted online were not even accurate, and when you clicked purchase, they said ‘fare not available.’ Very frustrating!” she says. Johan Svanstrom, the Asia-Pacific vice president of Hotels.com, says the company does a majority of its business in Greater China via its call centers, which is multiples higher than its call-center generated business from places such as Australia and the U.S. “There are a lot of stories about China’s Internet boom, but only 2% of travel [in China] is booked online. It’s still mainly a cash society,” he adds.