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How the Modern Travel Agency Survives: The Hunt for ‘Authenticity’

The state of the brick-and-mortar travel agency isn’t what you think.

In his commentary on the recent book The End of Airports, which discusses the ways in which time has dulled the miracle of air travel, Nathan Heller, a New Yorker writer and frequent traveler, argued that we are now on the downward side of what was once a “golden age” in air travel. “The battle between jet planes and smartphones isn’t about speed or glamour,” Heller wrote. “It’s about ways of knowing.” He’s referring to the growing desire among travelers to go beyond the places they see online. Endless streams of travel photographs, and articles rounding up tourists traps and “locals-only” spots, posted on countless blogs and travel magazines, make anything less than the truly novel and growth-inspiring feel discounted, like finding footprints on the Moon.

This is especially true in 2016, when common sense says that travel agencies stand prominent in a long line of industries crippled and mutilated by the advent of the internet, snuggled right between Yellow Pages and Blockbuster. Online booking agencies, such as Expedia and Priceline, proved able to cut out the middlemen and wrestled power back to the people, or so the story goes, while user-generated sites like TripAdvisor and Yelp provided the itinerary. But this wealth of knowledge comes from outsiders — you and me and your friend posting on Facebook — who are only observers in foreign cultures. Outsiders telling outsiders how to get inside. But if Ken Fish is any indication, this outsiderness can be cured, for a price.

“Look, unless you have a reliable source, it’s pretty hard to plan your own trip,” said Fish, at his offices in Manhattan. “Unless you’re really prepared to manage your trip from beginning to end…to get up in the morning and answer every question: Is that really the best hotel, or just by reputation? What’s the right room? Do you know anyone there? Will they give you a special experience, or just know you by name when you arrive?” That’s where Fish comes in.

In 1989, Fish founded a small travel agency called Absolute Australia. After almost 30 years and several expansions to an even greater number of countries, his agency has grown into a powerhouse among luxury travel — the type that, for a few thousand dollars, can remove the stress of planning a trip and promise to deliver an authentic, tailored experience. His New York office, now generalized to Absolute Travel, sits on the 17th floor of a building that coincidentally overlooks the red-bricked building in lower Manhattan where, at 22, he left his finance job for the travel industry.

Fish’s office is a collision of places, as one might expect. The room is ringed in uninterrupted deep green wallpaper; paintings from around the world lean against the walls, waiting to be hung. At the room’s center are two beautiful, comfortable chairs, waiting for his next client and resting on a Persian rug that matches his mousepad. The view from the window, the gray grid of the financial district, is obstructed partially by a series of trinkets from around the world, among them a globe, a photograph of Fish smiling and shaking hands with Bill Clinton, and, most prominent, an award from Travel + Leisure for World’s Best Tour Operator, among the most coveted designations in the industry.

Travel is big business in America, and it’s getting bigger. In 2015, the total market grew 5 percent, to $341 billion, and is predicted to reach $381 billion by 2017, according to a recent annual report by Phocuswright, a travel research company. The report also indicates that offline bookings, which include Absolute Travel, make up 56 percent of all travel bookings, and are expected to stay dominant for at least several more years. Most insulated in this offline group is the luxury sector, the niche market that Fish represents, giving trips that are marketed as something “truly private, customized and unique.”


What Fish sells, at a price higher than you’d find from booking online (although a survey conducted by The New York Times found that simple trips could be booked cheaper from brick-and-mortar agencies), is a feeling of belonging wherever you go. Wherever he goes, Fish says, he sees a familiar face.

This desire for belonging — or at least, familiarity — aligns with an issue that Thomas Swick, a travel writer, discussed at length in a piece that was subsequently republished in The Best American Travel Writing 2014. Swick feels that traveling, despite the stories you hear, is largely a lonely and emotionally flat experience. Travelers are strangers, looking in from unfamiliar, cold streets into the warm, accepting culture of houses where they aren’t invited. He writes that the most common emotion while traveling is “wistfulness,” the dull longing to be accepted into a foreign culture, like you were only days before in the home you left behind.

While Absolute Travel represents the most traditional, and expensive, recipe for inclusion, this desire for traveling inside of a culture, rather than visiting in beautiful, shiny and impenetrable exterior, hasn’t gone unnoticed by the behemoths of the Internet era. Expedia has responded to this need for a local experience by maintaining a global team of “Expedia Local Experts,” which they described in a statement as “experts who live in different markets around the world, and who work directly with consumers to provide an insider’s take on activities, properties and options within a given city.”

But simply knowing where to go isn’t the same as truly being there. Going to a “top-rated” hotspot isn’t having an experience so much as attending a play, where the thespians in robes have been replaced by disheveled forty-something locals after a long day’s work, drinking at their favorite dive bar, and you’re in the audience with a bottle of sunscreen peeking out of your fanny pack.

Some entrepreneurs are entering the travel market with companies aimed solely at fixing this “wistfulness problem.” Halfway around the world, in Tel Aviv, an expat named Ross Belfer offers his take of the local expert, eschewing the big price or big site of the competition. For over seven years, Belfer served as the PR rep for the Israel Tourism Board in North and South America. Halfway through his tenure, he was relocated to Tel Aviv, where he worked closely with journalists, all of them looking for “the most obscure, hard-to-reach and captivating spots and tastemakers in the city,” he said. This intense desire for untouched authenticity made an idea click, and he began what is now Eager Tourist, a company that sells tours of the city, a la carte, which take travelers to parties, art galleries, bustling markets — anywhere authentic his clients can think of.

Other Luxury Tour Operators


Last year, readers of Travel + Leisure recognized the following tour companies for excellence. Read more here.
Butterfield & Robinson for luxury travel with an active focus
VBT Bicycling & Walking Vacations for biking tours in 26 countries
Classic Journeys for interacting with the local culture
Wilderness Travel for more hands-on, get-dirty adventuring
Kensington Tours for tailor-made trips

“We are the antithesis of a hotel or restaurant rating system with mass appeal, a.k.a. TripAdvisor,” said Belfer. “Because frankly, the future of travel is headed in the opposite direction.” Even his agency is an authentic experience; he doesn’t advertise, because the word-of-mouth discovery of his service is what “most excites travelers.” Instead of the more expensive, custom-tailored start-to-end trips of Fish’s creation, Belfer is more like a paid-for friend, helping visitors get seemingly as close to becoming a citizen as they can without moving, and filing the paperwork.

As the Internet brings the sights and sounds of a bullfight, or the bustling Louvre, to everyone’s phone, and cheap, reliable travel brings droves of tourists to the center of whichever cultural hub they choose, that clean, smooth, out-of-the-box specialness of travel has been scuffed and well tread upon. Many writers describe their favorite travel locations as those where the experiences had been difficult, or where the locals rarely saw tourists. So instead of being ignored and walked by, they were engaged with and sometimes gawked at. Fisher and Belfer (and now, Expedia) are trying to create an experience during which a city can be seen from the inside, if only temporarily.

Back in his New York office, Fish rattles off a list of curated excursions his team had provided in the past: teenagers in Japan with a thing for martial arts touring a famous sumo house; foodies in South Africa experiencing the bustling back kitchen of a Cape Town restaurant; the curious revisiting past lives with a mystic healer in India. Fish’s team sits directly outside his office in rows of desks, two monitors to a desk, dozens of books stacked here and there — some on Southeast Asia or West Africa or Myanmar, another more academic text, curiously, on the topic of weather — all stretching alongside a row of windows dotted with a nazar from Turkey. But many of the desks are empty.

Everyone in the New York office travels “at least four to five times a year, to some varying degree,” says Fish. How can you be a local guide without moving ever closer to becoming a resident, even if it’s just a week or two at a time, a handful of times a year? “There’s a scene in Cool Hand Luke, at lights out. They say one in box and one in bush. I ask, jokingly, how many workers do I have in the bush? It motivates our team, it’s what makes them happy,” he laughed, as a siren blared on the street far below, where flocks of map-clutching tourists ride a ferry to Lady Liberty, a trip few New Yorkers regularly, if ever, take.

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