In a neighborhood where travel apps thrive and tickets, hotels and cars are booked on one’s mobile device, 60-year-old Adolfo Carranza, a travel agent, might seem an obsolete figure.
Yet, seven days a week, eight hours a day, Carranza sits behind a desk at Paisas Travels, a one-room office at 2301 Mission St. with two desks, one manned by himself and another by his partner.
Paisas is one of some 20 travel agencies in the Mission District where people still drop in or call to buy tickets and make their vacation plans. Carranza doesn’t see himself as a travel agent hanging on in the last days of a dying business, but a businessman bullish enough to start a new travel agency in June of this year.
“I was thinking of [opening my own business] before, but I never did because I was so happy with my work,” said Carranza, who worked as an agent for someone else for 22 years. That job ended in 2018 after he got injured and later fired. Once he recovered, he decided that 2019 was the time to open his own shop.
To be sure, the number of full-time travel agents has declined from a high of 124,000 in 2000 to some 81,000 in 2016, but in the Mission — and other Latino communities — it remains a niche industry.
Only a couple of months old, Paisa Travels has done better than he expected. “Last Saturday, I sold $7,000 worth of tickets in one day,” he said.
It is a start – not yet as lucrative as the day in 2009 that he sold $15,000 worth of tickets in one day, or the time he informed a few customers about a well-priced flight to Guadalajara, and the next day, found dozens of people lined up outside his office. But he thinks his business is building.
On a recent Monday morning, he had already sold 10 tickets within the first three hours.
“Today is busy,” he said, as he juggled three different customers on the phone. Carranza makes most of his income directly from the airlines he has contracts with. They pay him a certain percentage of the tickets he sells, depending on the destination. Carranza also charges customers a small amount for his time. “I try to give the best service for the lowest cost,” he explained.
And if the apps offer convenience and fancy algorithms to get the best price, Carranza can beat them, getting lower ticket prices from the airlines, in return for bringing in fliers. On a recent Thursday, we tested his rates. Paisas’ cost for a one-way flight from SFO to Guadalajara was a full $25 cheaper than the cheapest flight available online at Kayak.
On the same day, he offered a $350 round-trip flight to London – $100 cheaper than most tickets found on Kayak.
Carranza said most of his customers are older Latinos who have known him for more than 20 years. They may be uncomfortable using the Internet, but they also trust their travel agents to find better deals than they would be able to on their own. Others do not want to put their credit card information online, for safety reasons.
When asked if he worries his travel business will die off with his aging core customers, he responded, “Maybe,” but added many of his customers are also young, the children or grandchildren of his clients. He also often gets clients through others that use him, citing an example in which he booked 112 out of the 145 seats on a plane for a customer’s destination wedding in Mexico. That, he said, also brought in many new customers.
The appeal of travel agencies also resides in the personal touch. The travelers trust Carranza to find good deals, and the airlines know him, so they do give him the good deals. “I’ve known this community for 22 years,” he said, “and they know me.”
Mission resident Elena Asturias, 56, has known Carranza for almost 30 years, she said. “Every major event of our lives has been supported by Adolfo Carranza and his travel expertise,” she said. Her wedding in Veracruz 26 years ago would not have been possible without Carranza organizing dozens of flights, she added.
When a different customer’s family member passed away in Mexico and could not afford tickets home, Carranza coordinated with the Mexican Consulate and AeroMexico to help him afford the flight.
“Adolfo is a real treasure, helping generations of families reconnect and share important events across borders,” said Asturias.
The biggest problem with these types of businesses is the lack of licenses, insurance, and accreditation with the airlines. Most of the clients that visit these establishments do not know that all travel agencies must have a license from the state of California called CST (California Seller of Travel https://sotas.doj.ca.gov/sellerSearch.action), which protects the clients in case they go out of business, which, unfortunately has occurred several times in the past. In addition, for an agency to declare that it has a business relationship with the airlines, the agency must be accredited with ARC (Airlines Reporting Corporation) https://www2.arccorp.com/products-participation/travel-agencies/become-an-arc-accredited-agent. Additionally to get approval from ARC an agency must provide a bond, letter of credit or cash deposit in the minimum amount of $20,000, something that most of these small businesses do not have. In fact, they are ticket re-sellers and some are not reliable.