A local travel agency is looking to Columbians to survive while its industry struggles with the ubiquity of online alternatives.
The Student Travel Agency branch on Broadway between 111th and 112th streets will reopen Monday after closing its doors for a month of renovations. The store, which opened in 1996 and was last renovated in 2002, has a new layout and a modern design with brighter colors.
Teresa Cordoza, an STA public relations coordinator, said that the remodeling was meant to bring the Columbia branch up to date with the company’s other locations.
“We are trying to globalize the brand and make all of our stores universal,” Cordoza said. “You now have the same type of location that you’d see in our other branches throughout the world.”
The Columbia branch relies mostly on walk-in and repeat customers, with its core market the 18-39 age range.
“We cater especially to students,” Cordoza said. “That’s the reason that many of our locations are on a campus or near a campus.”
Branch manager Kelly Predmesky said that STA’s services include organizing tours and volunteer trips, providing travel insurance, and booking flights with special rates for the college community. Predmesky said that the most important advantage of the traditional travel agency is the customized service and expertise it provides.
“The reason people still walk into our store is that we can do things that a computer can’t,” Predmesky said. “We’ve taken the trips our customers are taking—we can give them information that they’re not going to find on a website.”
The four-person staff at the Columbia branch specializes in a range of global destinations. Predmesky, whose specialty is South America, said that STA customers interested in specific locations are then matched to experts with that specialization.
Many students, however, said that Internet search engines like Kayak and Expedia make agencies irrelevant and eliminate expensive fees.
“If I wasn’t going somewhere I usually go, I’d consider using an agency,” Raphaëlle Debenedetti, CC ’14, said. “But the booking fee is an automatic no. I don’t want to pay more because I can figure it out on my own.”
Agencies still represent about a third of the travel market, according to a report from travel research group PhoCusWright, and Predmesky said that STA’s services save customers time.
“You may have to scroll through 20 to 30 pages of hotels in Paris, whereas if you walk into our store, I know the hotel that will meet your needs,” she said. “In 10 minutes, you’ll have a hotel where my customers have stayed before.”
Even as the role of the travel agency industry has diminished, Predmesky said that STA is not worried about staying competitive and attracting new customers.
“We’ve had the same business model for 30 years, and that’s a testament to the fact that we’re not threatened by travel websites,” she said.
Grace Kim, CC ’16, whose family frequently uses travel agencies, said they were worth it.
“It’s really easy to find touristy stuff online, but it’s hard to find the really cool stuff—cool places you hear about from locals, people who have been there,” she said.