GOING Places became the latest agency to move into the superstore market when it opened its first Holidayworld unit in York at the weekend.
Depending on its success, the multiple plans to open five more over the next year.
It is a concept proving increasingly popular with the agents, which for years have been accused of lagging behind other high-street retailers. Travel agents' lack of innovation has been compared with the drab exteriors of banks and building societies.
Going Places' Holidayworld has themed areas in cruising, flights, Florida and late deals along with a Costa Coffee cafe and play area. Customers can also sit in aircraft seats and watch holiday videos while luggage, guide books and sun-care products will also be available.
Managing director Peter Shanks said:"It will be very different and bring a bit of fun into booking a holiday. The concept is unproven but we have developed other distribution methods which have all been successful. We expect the vast majority of Holidayworld sales to be package holidays but because of the dedicated sections there should be a greater mix."
Technology also plays a role at the 10,000sq ft superstore. A DIY area will enable customers to access travel information on Going Places' Matchmaker system.
The growth of the superstore has been put down to the success of Holiday Hypermarkets, part owned by First Choice, United Norwest and West Midlands Co-op, which opened its latest shop in Sutton Coldfield last week.
Managing director John Donnelly said the appeal lies in the diversity of products which draw in a wider range of customers.
"Specialists travel agents attract cruise customers, for example, while the multiples sell the mainframe holidays. But we sell and specialise in everything," he said. "Booking a holiday should be an experience, not a chore. We want to involve the customer and that is where the growth lies - technology. I believe the concept is proven and the way to improve it is through technology."
Ilkeston Co-op claims to have started the superstore concept over a decade ago with its 9,500sq ft shop in Ilkeston.
Managing director Chris Smith said:"We were the pioneers of the superstore but new ground has been broken since then. At risk of being lynched, the process of booking a holiday in a travel agent has become a very cold experience and staff have become little more than ordertakers."
Ilkeston is soon to open its second superstore, in Sheffield. And far from being a cold experience, customers will be entertained by former Butlins redcoats. During quiet times, line dancing, tea dances and mother and toddler groups will be held in the store.
"We have to work harder to get people through the doors," he said.
Thomas Cook is also experimenting with superstores, complete with children's play areas, seating for 50 people and TV screens showing travel footage. It has opened two Thomas Cook Plus shops in the past month - at Manchester and Oldbury in the West Midlands - and inherited Carlson's Glasgow warehouse when it merged with the company earlier this year.
But Thomas Cook retail managing director Andrew Windsor said the concept has limited growth.
"Travel retailing has been slow at innovating while other retailers have changed. I applaud anything that is innovative in our industry but there cannot be hundreds of these hypermarkets," he said. "You need a large catchment area and pool of customers. I would be very surprised if we get beyond 15 or 20.
"If you don't get it right it could be a financial disaster. You need to understand issues such as drive times. There is no point having a large catchment area if the traffic is bad. People simply will not drive there."
Windsor said business at its Manchester superstore was outstripping both its new Trafford Centre shop and also its unit in Meadowhall.
"Research shows customers love to see so many people serving," he said.
While the average value of bookings at the superstore is higher than at its traditional shops, Windsor dismissed claims that a superstore is the equivalent of 15 high-street agencies.
"Thomas Cook Plus will be about six times the turnover of Thomas Cook shops," he said.
Rather surprisingly, Lunn Poly is now the only major high-street agent not to have opened a holiday superstore and says it has no immediate plans to do so.
Holiday Hypermarkets: 13 currently open. Plans to have 26 by the end of the year.
Thomas Cook: Thomas Cook Plus shops in Manchester and Oldbury and a holiday warehouse, opened by Carlson, in Paisley, Glasgow. Others almost certain to follow but no concrete plans.
Going Places:New Holidayworld in York. Currently looking at other sights and plans to open five more within 12 months.
Ilkeston Co-op: one superstore in Ilkeston and another due to open in Sheffield in October.
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