Dear Etiquetteer: I work in the travel industry, and my colleagues and I provide excellent service for our clients. Two recent incidents made me want to write you to ask "Since when did it become OK to tell people that their jobs are meaningless?"
Not long ago one of my colleagues was seated at an industry event when someone at the table said he could not understand why people use a travel agency when they can go online and "get it cheaper." Well, let me tell you, she told him why in no uncertain terms why people go to travel agencies. She was charming about it, but there was no question when she was finished. She was just great.
It happened again last night, but to me. A well-dressed woman approached me at a party and asked what I did. When I told her she asked if I knew a colleague, and when I told her did she replied: "It amazes me any of you people are still in business." I thanked her for concern, told her that, frankly, I had a good year, but lamented having to answer some form of that question so frequently. "Well, it's no wonder. I really am amazed you still exist." She just kept going. Even if were true, it would be even worse. How completely offensive to force a complete stranger to justify their livelihood, in a casual conversation. Perhaps she considers good manners as obsolete as travel agents.
This is something people in my industry have to address in almost every social situation, and I must say, it's exhausting. I've even had cab drivers, in casual conversation will say things like this. Is it really "perfectly proper" to suggest to someone you've only just met that their livelihood is obsolete, and demand they justify their professional existence? It always seems, at the very least, rude, and at worst, somewhat threatening and insulting.
At the very least it's Taking a Liberty to offer an Unsolicited Opinion like that. One wonders if blacksmiths and thatchers had to run the same sort of Challenging Party Chat in their days. Unfortunately few people have any internal monologue any longer, much less sensitivity to the feelings of others. Questions of This Sort might be marginally less offensive if they were couched in concern for your own well-being, such as "What are you doing to retain market share in the face of the rapid growth of the online travel industry?" But only marginally.
Etiquetteer suspects what you really want to know is how to get out of conversations like this, and the answer is really a sort of verbal Bunburying. You remember Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, yes? Algernon's fictional friend in the country, Bunbury, who he had to go visit whenever he had to get out of an invitation, is what you require, while also making a point about the stability of your industry. Respond thus: "Happily not everyone feels the same way you do! We're having a very successful year. Now please excuse me, I must go greet one of my friendliest clients." And then walk away without waiting for a response; that will communicate that you've taken offense.
Should you wish to engage such a person in conversation - and anything is possible - draw out the other person's travel practices, and then turn the conversation to specific destinations mentioned by that person.
Etiquetteer knows personally the values both of booking online and working with an agent, and wishes you and your colleagues well as you champion your industry by providing excellent service to satisfied clients.