WHEN Madam Annie Ang, 54, was eyeing a trip to Taiwan this year, she was tempted to go straight for the cheap fares offered online.
But she remained faithful to her travel agent of 10 years, Travel GSH, because her long-time agent called her with a deal too sweet to resist.
"The air ticket was $10 to $20 cheaper than elsewhere. And it's easier because they do all the research for me, such as which hotel is nearest to the shopping mall," said the human resource manager.
Like Travel GSH, smaller travel agencies here, battered by growing Internet sales and surging manpower costs, have been forced to get creative to survive.
Some are offering customised services which people cannot get by booking their holidays online, while others are touting their wares overseas, or targeting niche markets such as corporate or group tours.
To stay afloat, Singatour has begun wooing inbound tourists by selling its Bintan and Batam day-trip packages through overseas agents. Like many small-timers, the 15-year-old agency is based in Chinatown.
It has also approached more associations and companies which book group tours, said director of sales Philip Gan, who added that it is slowly bringing in some business.
There are close to 1,200 travel agencies in Singapore. Most are small or medium-sized, and tend to run on a shoestring and have only one outlet.
Five such outfits interviewed by The Straits Times said that they have seen demand slashed by up to a third in the past year alone, due to the growing popularity of budget airlines and flight-booking websites.
So Passion Tours in People's Park Centre has come up with customised itineraries while its neighbour Splendour Holidays, whose customers are mostly Chinese nationals based in Singapore, started Facebook and Chinese microblogging service Weibo accounts six months ago.
And while Travel GSH continues to pamper its pool of regular customers, director Jessie Hu plans to close down the 18-year- old agency's only outlet at People's Park Centre in two years.
There is no need for a storefront, she explained, because her regular customers - who account for 80 per cent of the business - can make enquiries and bookings by e-mail or phone and pay through Internet banking.
Larger brick-and-mortar agencies like Chan Brothers Travel have set up their own websites which let users pay for their flights and hotels online.
And the National Association of Travel Agents Singapore (Natas) started an online portal in 2010 for small and medium-sized agencies to sell their products. The portal is currently used by 59 firms. This puts the smaller players on the same playing field as suppliers and online players, and gives customers convenient access to information, said a spokesman.
But some smaller agencies remain reluctant, saying they lack the manpower, finances and expertise. A good website could set them back $10,000, and would have to be manned 24 hours a day.
For now, belt-tightening is helping, but long-term survival remains uncertain, says Singatour's Mr Gan. "I do what I can, but it's the next generation's headache," said the 60-year-old.