After more than 20 years in Southampton, Cook Travel abandoned its office there last week and merged it with its office on Main Street in East Hampton, where it was founded in 1984. The agency still has offices in New York and Greenport.
“Customers rarely walk in the office for travel help these days,” said Audrey Lyons, a leisure specialist at the company. “Because of Google, our customers come from all over the world. Most of them contact us by phone or email.”
Cook Travel is not alone. More than 10,000 brick and mortar travel agencies have closed nationwide in recent years, according to a company press release. Giving in to a changed world, the firm has spent as much as $50,000 a month online to compete against booking engine behemoths from Travelocity to Expedia. Its niche is high-end luxury travel at a discount.
So why, as one of the few remaining walk-in agencies on the South Fork, keep an East Hampton office at all? The company has “remained convinced that there is a need for a small-town agency,” according to a press release. It’s a matter of a personal touch. Rather than talk to a computer, “it’s still nice to have a live agent . . . somebody [to] trust,” said Gisela Gale, an agent.
Many customers who’ve tried to book their travel online have “come to regret their decision and end up paying more,” according to Maryann Cicio, the agency’s Italy expert. “There is no greater value than talking to a live, experienced person.”
Dennis Kutwal, an agent at the company, agrees: “I give my home and cell numbers to my clients so they can reach me after hours in case anything goes wrong.”