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In An Online World, Travel Agents Can Still Help

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)

Growing CrossFit Program Branches Out To Children

By Kim Lyons, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)

As fitness crazes go, the workout program CrossFit has some of the most dedicated disciples.

The wildly popular, self-directed program, which puts a focus on core strength training and conditioning, has built a robust online community, where its participants set goals, share routine variations and track their progress. They’ve even developed their own language: the WOD is the workout of the day, AMRAP is “as many reps as possible” and a C&J is what’s better known to weightlifters as a “clean and jerk.” It’s safe to say that for many of its followers, CrossFit is a philosophy, as well as a workout regimen.

Chiropractor Patrick Landry, 48, a former college athlete, discovered CrossFit while training for a marathon several years ago. He didn’t feel like he was getting what he needed from his running and his judo practice and decided to give it a try. He was so pleased with the results that he opened the CrossFit gym in January 2012.

“I know there are a lot of skeptics of CrossFit, and some people call it a cult,” Landry said. “But it creates an emotional anchor for people, emotionally, spiritually, and physically. People who have never exercised a day in their lives are learning to control their bodies, to move better and have better flexibility, better coordination, and stamina.”

In the fall of 2012, Landry took what he thought was the next logical step: starting a kids program. He has four children of his own and wanted to give them options besides team sports. He now has about 30 children who participate regularly and semi-regularly in the program.

Barry Novotny and his daughter Ainsley, 12, are part of a CrossFit family that goes to Landry’s gym. She uses the training as a supplement, to help her build endurance for cross-country running and the other sports she plays.

“I think the majority of her soccer team does CrossFit as an extracurricular activity,” Barry Novotny said. “We try to go as a family as many nights a week as we can. There’s a real community aspect to it, which makes it more fun for the kids.”

That’s a primary goal for Landry: that the kids participating in the program aren’t seeing it as one more thing on their already full schedules.

“The way I teach the classes, you can drop in and out, and you don’t have to be here every day,” he said. “There are too many sports where kids are told they have to be there, at practice, at the games, and they get overcommitted.”

The gym is one of the 1,800 CrossFit facilities that teaches the CrossFit Kids program. According to the program’s website, the aim is to “provide an active alternative to sedentary pursuits, which means less childhood obesity and all-around better health for our children.”

The CrossFit Kids program is structured so that it builds mechanics first, then consistency, then adds intensity, which Sara Colley said was a good way to prevent kids from performing exercises before they’re prepared. She added that a big concern with growing children are growth plate injuries, which can result when children try to do exercises they’re not ready for.

Colley, a physical therapist with UPMC Sports Medicine and the Centers for Rehab Services, said while she has some concerns about inexperienced children possibly injuring themselves with some of the ballistic movements in CrossFit’s weight-lifting routines, like snatches and clean-and-jerk lifts, there are plenty of positive things they can gain from the program.

“It can be fun, and there’s no emphasis on ‘winning,’ which is a great idea,” she said. And, CrossFit can provide an alternative exercise for kids who are involved in only one sport, which can lead to repetitive stress injuries, Colley said.

“If they’re doing CrossFit while they’re taking time away from their sport, that’s a good thing,” she said. “And any time you can boost a kid’s self-esteem, that’s good, too. But that requires a good coach.”

She said that was an area of concern for her because according to CrossFit’s website, the training to instruct children consists of a weekend session and a criminal background check but no additional certification or degree, which Colley doesn’t think is sufficient.

Landry said he has a good rapport with the kids in his program, which he agrees is crucial to their participation.

“If I don’t know how to connect to kids, they won’t respond,” he said. “I want it to be fun for them, for them to want to be here.”

Photo: John Heller via Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/TNS