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By Kim Lyons, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)

PITTSBURGH — Bill Katz’s Squirrel Hill home is adorned with mementos from his travels: a silk screen from China in the living room, a painting from Mexico in the television room and the beloved collection of elephant statuettes assembled by his wife, Phyllis. After 54 years running Pittsburgh travel agency Atlas Travel, Katz can tell you a little bit about a lot of places and how to get where you need to go.

“Italy is very big right now. I have a lot of clients who want a package to visit Europe and they always want to go to Italy,” he said. He also recommends Thailand, and Phyllis Katz agreed. “It’s just beautiful there — the people, the food, everything is wonderful,” she said.

Katz downsized over the past several years, deciding the hours spent driving between the five offices was too much. He focused primarily on his main office downtown. Then, after some health problems last year, he streamlined further, moving operations to his home office.

Many travel agents are taking a streamlined approach to operations, according to the Alexandria, Va.-based American Society of Travel Agents.

Telecommuting and “virtual” agencies have become a trend in the travel industry, according to ASTA spokeswoman Melissa Teates, with about 40,000 operating as one-person shops. Some agents go digital for cost savings, but others run their businesses online while traveling themselves to keep up with the latest in destinations in real time.

The travel industry has undergone a lot of changes since Katz opened his first office in 1960.

Figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show a steady decline in the number of agents since 2000, when more than 124,000 worked full-time. As of 2014, there were just over 64,000 full-time travel agents in the U.S., a number that include solo agents.

According to the travel agents’ group, the standard 10 percent commission that larger airlines used to pay travel agents ended around 2002. Close to 91 percent of travel agents now charge some kind of fee for their services, whether it’s for airline ticket services, trip research or hotel reservations.

Still, the American Society of Travel Agents disputes the popular idea that the proliferation of online travel sites and availability of online booking agents has all but killed the traditional travel agency.

“There’s definitely a misconception out there that because there is a plethora of online travel sites, this has hurt travel agents,” said Zane Kerby, ASTA president and chief executive.

“There are so many choices about where to go and where to stay for vacation, and with most Americans having precious little vacation time, they don’t have the luxury of a ‘vacation do-over.’ A good travel agent already knows what you don’t even know to ask.”

In the frequently-asked-questions section on ASTA’s website, the group points out that travelers have been “conditioned” to wait until the last minute to book trips in the hopes of getting discounted rates, which can be hit-or-miss. Working with a travel agent, the society maintains, can help travelers avoid some of the potential chaos that can result from trying to track down deals online.

Katz said he’s kept many clients he gathered over the decades, and has a steady stream of referrals as well. All that, Katz said, is a testament to the value of the customized service travel agents can give clients.

Online travel websites, he says, mean a lot more work for travelers.

“It’s strictly a machine,” he said of Internet travel. “It gives you no personal attention.”

For a short flight, he said, booking online may be worth it _ for both the traveler and the travel agent, since such flights are not necessarily a lucrative part of an agent’s business.

To plan an entire vacation or a cruise, he still believes travelers are better off turning to someone with experience.

Katz can tell you without checking how far the main city of Rome is from the port where Mediterranean cruise ships dock (about a mile and a half); how long the Eurostar takes from get from London to Paris (a little over two hours, so go early); and whether a client would prefer a cruise to Cancun (with restaurants and attractions) or the Dominican Republic (which is all beaches, he says).

The biggest hit to the industry came after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Teates said. “Many small agencies did not have the cash flow to withstand months of depressed travel,” she said.

American Society of Travel Agents’ figures, culled from industry data, show that from February 2013 to February 2014, 18 percent of U.S. travelers used a travel agent.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the number of travel agents will continue to decline by about 12 percent through 2022, with those agents who specialize in a niche of the industry likely to fare the best.

(c)2015 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Bill Katz poses for a portrait in his home office in Squirrel Hill from where he operates his business, Atlas Travel, on April 8, 2015 near Pittsburgh, Pa. The business is in its 54th year. (Larry Roberts/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/TNS)

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