It pays to specialize
How Ethnic Travel Agencies Have an Edge on the Internet
by Katie Honan and Erin McCarthy
Along the loud, busy stretch of Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights, Queens, the roar of the 7 train—or the “International Express”, because of the multi-ethnic riders who stop along the route– interrupts conversations and phone calls. You can buy anything on Roosevelt, from imported Irish breakfast sausages to humitas, corn meal tamales popular in Ecuador.
Scattered between the hair salons and shops are small travel agencies that cater to the residents of this ethnically diverse neighborhood. Some of these smaller agencies, like JetPeru, specialize in trips to single countries. Others, like Delgado Travel, focus not only selling trips to people’s home countries, but to help bring a bit of their home countries here.
Despite the popularity of Priceline, Expedia and other travel sites, these small ethnically specialized agencies that essentially do business the same they have for decades, still thrive, while many travel agencies that didn’t specialize have not. The American Society of Travel Agents declared 2009 to be the worst year on record, with travel down 16 percent in the United States.
“Booking online can be a hassle sometimes and it’s just easier here,” says Linda Delgado-Eichner, vice president of Delgado Travel, a business started by her father Hector in Jackson Heights 35 years ago. “Someone can come in and our agents can resolve plane issues quickly.”
Research gathered by the ASTA shows a decline in travel agents beginning after the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks, when travel slowed around the world. The increasing ease of internet sites resulted in the number of registered agents dropping to 86,420 in 2008, a large drop from the 124,030 in during their peak in 2000.
Ease and convenience may offer one explanation why agencies like Delgado’s have survived the book it yourself online phenomenon. Delgado-Eichner thinks she has her finger on something else.
“We’re much more than just a travel agency,” says Delgado-Eichner. Delgado Travel runs Mexican and Ecuadorian radio stations out of their headquarters in Jackson Heights, offering news from the far-away countries for customers. It’s a built-in marketing strategy for them, too–the stations can only be played on radios sold by Delgado Travel, which advertise deals and cheap fares for their 30-plus stores in the United States. They also offer money wiring and a courier service, where people can ship clothing and supplies to their families back home.
Delgado Travel has chosen to serve the community in a variety of ways, with travel being only one aspect. They’re not simply putting bodies on planes back home, but offering a bit of home here, too.
And it’s home that’s usually on the mind of travelers booking trips at these agencies. Fifteen percent of their sales come from tours, says Delgado-Eichner, the kind of trips most would consider a vacation. The bulk of their sales are long trips home, to countries like Colombia, Argentina, and Ecuador and Mexico–their two most popular countries.
“Our customers go back every year to visit their families,” she said. “They’re always looking for an excuse to go back—a Communion, a Sweet Sixteen. Parents send kids back home when they get out of school.”
Language is a factor in Delgado’s continued success, too, says Delgado-Eichner. Every agent—all females, dressed like flight attendants and situated behind computer kiosks on long desks—speak Spanish as their first language.
“I feel comfortable because they speak Spanish,” said Wilfredo Garcia, who lives in Ozone Park and travels to his home in Cartagena, Colombia as often as he can. He was in Delgado one recent morning comparing prices from both online sites and other agencies.
“I speak some English but you know, my language–I feel comfortable…that’s why I came here–and the price too.”
The prices at Delgado and other agencies like it, he says, are usually cheaper.
Delgado Travel is offering round-trip flights to Mexico City for $300–a steal compared to the close to $500 flights being offered on both Priceline and Expedia. These were the cheapest tickets, too, and include online service fees. Delgado-Eichner credits her company’s reputation within the airline industry as a reason why they get such great deals.
Across Roosevelt is Costamar Travel, a smaller travel chain with ten outposts in New York and New Jersey that specializes in trips to South and Central America. Like Delgado, most of its staff conducts business in Spanish—something its owner believes has helped his business thrive.
“The Hispanic community feels more comfortable using companies that they identify with,” says Fernando Espinoza, who has worked as a travel agent for 20 years and with Costamar for ten.
Despite the fact that Internet travel sites have exploded, companies like Costamar and Delgado still manage to attract steady business. Delgado plans to open six more agencies by the end of the year, taking advantage of low rents and business that has slowed in the economy, but not by much.
“People may be going home once a year now, as opposed to twice a year,” said Delgado-Eichner. “But they’re still booking flights.”
She also said many customers “shipped” themselves back to their home countries to wait out the recent recession in the United States.
If a customer needs to change a flight last-minute, they can simply walk into the store and talk to an actual person, as opposed to waiting on hold. Delgado-Eichener says she’s seen customers come back to her agency after trying to book a trip digitally, most citing frustration with impersonal travel booking. Dealing with someone in person who speaks your language, she says, makes their agency worth it. And the price
The strategy of these small travel agencies seems to be working. A report released from the American Society of Travel Agents found that only 34 percent of travel agencies turned a profit in 2009.
“As long as we have the same level of price and we emphasize customer service, we compete with the internet directly,” says Espinoza. “We have lasted this long through hard times.”
A lot of that has to do with the increasing influence Hispanic Americans have on the market. According to a 2006 study done by United States Destination Marketing group, the Hispanic buying power tripled from 1990 to 2003 and their median household income increased by 20 percent; more than three times the national average.
According to a report from the University of Georgia’s Selig Center for Economic growth, the Hispanic community’s purchasing power comprises the world’s ninth biggest economy, and is projected to reach $1 trillion by 2010.
“At the end of the day,” said Delgado-Eichner, “they know we’re here and we’re not going anywhere.”