Comment: Are travel agents surviving because they have evolved to fill a gap?

Comment: Are travel agents surviving because they have evolved to fill a gap?

Be an ‘advisor’ not just a middleman, says Steve Endacott, chairman of Teletext Holidays

I recently came across a presentation I gave 18 years ago to a group of financial analysts, to explain the various roles played in the holiday booking process.

It talked about three stages of booking a holiday: ‘dream’, ‘research’ and ‘book’ and looked at the roles of travel agents, call centres and online players.

At the time, I was fairly dismissive of travel agents, who I described as “inconvenient brochure warehouses” that acted as intermediaries for either their in-house tour operator owners or where independent selling meant a range of pre-built holidays from multiple holiday companies.

I wrongly predicted a rapid decline of high street agencies, as more customers migrated from walking into agencies, to talking to call centres or clicking online.

To be fair, this migration circle did occur, but ironically the biggest shift in the longer term has been from talking to a call centre to booking online via intuitive and content rich OTA sites that are delivered via high speed broadband connectivity. Although the overall number of high street travel agents has sharply declined, independent agents have survived or even thrived once you include the home-working sector.

To me the reason is simple.

Agents have evolved from being intermediaries, to becoming ‘travel advisors’ who offer a massive range of dynamically packaged holidays or specialist tour operators which offer differentiated and complex product that is not easily booked online.

I think the key element is not the product sold, but the word ‘advisor’.

In an internet-enabled world where online sites offer millions of holiday options, personalisation and recommendation are key buzz words and the primary focus of most IT development teams.

Online players struggle with the above, because most customers search their sites without ever revealing who they are and have to know what they want before they can search, severely restricting the data required for personalisation.

Contrast this to a shop environment, where the customer is sat in front of the advisor, who can often identify the right products by just looking at them ask more complex questions about what types of holidays and destinations they are willing to consider, as well as flexibility over departure dates, to get the right holiday.

Good agents can also influence the ‘dream’ stage by recommending destinations customers may want to visit, and, as all online players know, the earlier you capture a customer in their holiday booking process, the more loyal they become. That’s not to say some customers won’t just walk out of the shop and go online with an OTA or directly with supplier.

However, advice does have value, particularly when applied to more complex or higher spend holidays, where customers still want the reassurance from a travel expert before booking.

Lastly, and probably most importantly, online advertising costs continue to rise and are now so high that the average ‘success-only’ commission paid to agents, means they are again the preferred distribution for many cruise lines, most touring and adventure operators, not to mention new entrants like online travel giant, On the Beach.

The mantra of “if you can’t beat them, start using them again”, has never been more true.

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