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With fewer people traveling, agents suffer and some close up shop

Last year, I booked what I thought were three nights in the Wellington Hotel in New York. On the second afternoon of my stay, a cleaning lady informed me that I had to check out.

I told her I had a three-day reservation and showed her my paper, which she read and handed back, saying I had a one-day reservation. Sure enough, my official paper had me booked for one night. The hotel's mistake was an honest one, but I had to pack and get out. With nowhere to stay in Gotham City, I went to a pay phone and called more than a dozen hotels. I forget what big event was going on, but every place I called was booked.

Remaining calm, I telephoned Universal Travel Services in St. Petersburg and spoke with Lois Watson, the agency's founder and owner. She told me to hang up and wait by the phone. Within 10 minutes, she had found a room for me in a hotel in the Theater District. The hotel was one that had told me minutes earlier it had no vacancies.

How she got the room, I do not know. I relate this incident for several reasons: Travel, domestic and international, is often a precarious affair. After Sept. 11, it has become more precarious. Travel always has been personal, and it has become even more so following the World Trade Center attacks. And given new safety concerns, many experts advise travelers, even experienced ones, to make a travel agency part of their plans.

Case in point: For the first few days following the terrorist attacks on the twin towers, the country's travel agencies, especially small ones, did yeoman's work, rearranging flights and calming the nerves of stranded passengers at airports. Some agents literally became psychologists for terrified people desperate to get home and confronted with jammed airlines telephones and bottlenecked Internet Web sites.

Everyone has heard that the Sept. 11 attacks hit the airlines hard. But the untold story is that the travel agency industry _ the brick-and-mortar mainstay of moving people _ has taken a harder hit. Many small agencies have shut down for good.

Such is the case of Universal Travel, formerly at 2848 Fifth Ave. N. Established in September 1981, the four-person agency was celebrating its 20th anniversary when the two planes hit the World Trade Center. After the towers imploded, Universal's business imploded, too. Before Sept. 11, for example, the agency had booked 30 cabins for a group on a cruise ship. On Oct. 31, the day of Universal's closing, the group had canceled half of the cabins.

"If there's another scare," Watson said, "the whole cruise will go down the tubes. And, you know, I don't have the right to convince anybody that it's safe out there. I'm not going to talk somebody into getting on an airplane even though I believe security's better than it's ever been. I'm not about to pooh-pooh somebody's fears."

And therein lies the value of the small travel agency _ the personal touch, putting the concerns of the traveler as an individual first.

"In making a mailing about the closure and going through our Rolodex and our profiles in the computer, I was sad to see a lot of clients had died in the course of 20 years," Watson said. "I've watched couples raise their families. I now do their college trips. I do their honeymoons. You become part of the family. These people depend on us.

"The saddest thing about closing is the number of elderly people who are not computer-savvy. They have relied either on me or one of my agents for the past 20 years to help them make decisions. One 75-year-old lady, who speaks broken English, called yesterday in tears. For 20 years, we planned her trips back home to Bosnia. If she doesn't follow me to my new agency, the airlines are not going to be patient and help an old lady figure out the most economical, stress-free way of getting her to Bosnia to visit her family once a year."

But even before Sept. 11, small agencies were facing hard times. Travel agents earn money on commissions for each trip or service booked. Some earn a salary in addition to bonuses from their agencies.

The airlines always have been the travel agency's bread and butter. Until six years ago, agents earned a 10 percent commission on airline tickets, allowing them to give free travel services to customers. Given increasing costs and fierce Internet competition, the airlines started reducing agents' commissions from 10 percent to 8 percent and then to 5 percent. Then, the air carriers imposed commission caps. A $1,500 international fare, for instance, that once earned an agent $150 earned only $50. In August, airlines decreased commission caps even more for domestic, round-trip flights from $50 to $20.

Agencies such as Universal, which already were losing money or breaking even on bookings, have been forced to shut down. By the end of December, experts contend, one out of five of the nation's 37,000 travel agencies will close. Most of these, of course, are small operations. The large companies, already looking to gooble up their small competitors, will remain healthy because the airlines give bonuses to the outfits that bring in the most passengers.

Much will be lost as the small companies shut down. I could count on the agents at Universal to be experts in geography, and I trusted them to know the rules and regulations of every airline. I also knew that Watson or one of her agents would shop for me and find the best value.

Consumers know that the airlines are hurting and that they have received a federal bail-out. But travel agencies have received no aid, and their demise will also have a trickle-down effect on the economy.

"I understand that air traffic is more than leisure travel or business travel," Watson said. "It's also how we move our mail and many of our goods. But people need to understand what's happening to travel agents, what's happening to hotels, what's happening to theme parks, what's happening to every phase of travel. It's not just travel. It's also the man I rent my building from. It's now empty. My three employees must get worker's compensation. It's trickle down."

I have spoken with about 30 travel agents around the nation who are leaving the industry altogether, which is the case with Universal's three agents. Watson has joined BayWay Travel Group Inc. on Tierra Verde. Her immediate goal is to get her longtime clients reconnected with a viable agency.

Many people rely on the Internet for most of their travel needs, but the tragedy of Sept. 11 highlighted the Internet's fragility and the value of travel agencies. "When you're sitting in the airport and a flight's canceled, you can't pull out your computer and find out what flight to take," said Watson. "You'll have to pick up the phone and call your travel agent. The personal touch is still the best."

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