Travel Weekly spoke to agency owners at the Global conference about their successes and the challenges they face. Lee Hayhurst reports from Dubai
How have small independent travel agents survived the threat of the internet, shocks such as 9/11 and the 2004 tsunami, and the recent economic downturn?
That’s what Travel Weekly asked a diverse group of agents at the recent Global Travel Group conference in Dubai.
Some had decades of experience running successful local travel agencies; others had recently joined the industry.
Not all agreed about the future of the independent sector. But there was a shared sense of pride in the service and value that they offer customers.
And for some there was hope that a new generation of customers, brought up knowing only the minimal-service world of low cost flying and cheap web deals, will rediscover the value of an agent.
Richard Abery, of Spitfire Travel, said: “Although the internet is still growing, I also think a lot of people, because it’s so easy to make a mistake, are coming back to travel agents.
“Sometimes they disagree on price, but I do not discount. I explain the advantages of doing it that way and nine times out of 10 they book.”
Escape Worldwide’s Darren Vurnum said his agency was having its best period for a decade, earning 13% average commission. He described his firm as neither a web business nor a high street store as it does not have a shopfront or a bookable website.
“The internet is my shop window,” said Vurnum. “We have to be more credible because there are so many untrustworthy people out there.”
Facebook is an increasingly important way of building credibility, added Vurnum, who posts pictures of his staff all over the world. While he admitted it wasn’t necessarily driving business, social media does seem to be playing an important role for many small travel agents, who are able to tap into local networks as a trusted brand more easily than the big corporate players.
Two new agents, Lisa McGovern, who started her business Holiday Explorer a year ago with the proceeds from selling her restaurant, and Infinite Travel’s Emma Casburn, said they use Facebook.
McGovern, who said she always had a yearning to work in travel and once turned down a role with BA, specialises in weddings and honeymoons and picks up businesses at wedding fairs. “I have some really good times and then it goes quiet,” she said. “I have always had my own business and I thought if I can run a restaurant I can do anything.”
Casburn, who set up as a homeworker two years ago having previously taught English as a foreign language, said she believes a stint in an established agency would have helped.
“In retrospect I would have worked for another agency, like a Trailfinders,” she said.
“I had never sold anything so it would have been good being in an office and hearing how people sell. Then again, people say I have an open view on things and haven’t been led down a particular path.”
The importance of personalised service
Partners Kevin Whiting and Issy Wiggins-Turner of Goeasy Travel also have an interest in an estate agency and say there are synergies. Whiting said: “People do look for more service than just walking in and saying ‘book me a holiday to Benidorm’.”
Wiggins-Turner said she had survived a lot during her time as an agent, including the big shocks to the industry posed by the tsunami of 2004 and the 9/11 terror attacks in the US.
“I kept on brainstorming andchanging,” she said.
“When the Twin Towers happened, I specialised in weddings and honeymoons. When things got tough again in 2007-08 I scaled it right down and focused on service. I do home visits, one-to-ones.”
It is this attention to customer service, she says, that helped her retain her affluent Thames Valley customers when the business moved from the busy London commuter town of Twyford to the smaller village of Sherfield on Loddon.
Richard Elvin, of Global Flights, agreed about the need to adapt to a rapidly changing market.
“We have had one of the best winters for many years,” he said.“It’s a forever changing market and you need to adapt to survive. We live in a 24-hour world. If you use an internetbased company, anyone can just go online anytime and book.
“There was a time when travel agents were closing at the same rate as pubs because they just could not compete.
“It’s going to become harder and more difficult for people like us. You have to find a niche and work very hard to make a living.”
Building trust – and fluffy ducks
However, Elvin’s rather pessimistic forecast that the big corporates will continue to expand at the expense of small agencies was countered by experienced agent Wendy Slack of Global Travel. She said her 37 years in travel had seen her establish herself as the person the people of Crowborough, East Sussex, think of when they think about holidays.
“A lot of what has been said is about the trust element,” she said. “People trust me. The down side is I’m on duty 24/7.
“People will approach me all the time and ask what would it cost to go to such and such a place, so I’m often jotting down notes when I’m in the queue in the supermarket.”
Slack said her agency relies on the traditional high street shop window complete with window cards, but also has a “fun window” featuring a sunglass wearing fluffy duck display that’s kept topical. This has become a draw for local children – and even for a dog brought along by one visitor specifically to see it.
Slack said she was surprised and delighted by the number of young customers who use her.
“I will do their cheapy holidays and then they will come back with girlfriends or boyfriends and want to do more,” she said. “We really try to shop around to get them the very best deal.”
Slack took over the store from its previous owners, whom she aid were struggling, but within two years business was up 50%.
“We try to get out in the community as much as possible,” she added.
Low-cost carriers and mobile time-wasters
One of the big changes the more experienced agents have seen is the impact the changing airline sector has had on the industry, fuelled by the advent of low-cost flying and online travel agents.
Wiggins-Turner and Abery agreed the world is shrinking due to the entry of new carriers, but customers using price-driven online competitors are being stung by hidden charges.
Elvin added: “There is a generation of people who accept that as the norm. They have grown up with this low-cost airline mentality. They know nothing else.”
Vurnum said this works to his advantage as clients venturing beyond the Mediterranean for the first time often credit him when they receive services that airlines and hotels include the price. “It’s great because they get back andthink we’re gods,” he said.
One significant area of change that Vurnum says he has struggled with is mobile which, he said, had sparked a rise in the number of timewasters.
He said that since he made his websites mobile-friendly a year ago, he gets a lot of what he calls ‘Hawaii Five-0-ers’ – people who see a destination featured on TV and instantly request a quote.
“You go back with a quote and they say ‘no thanks, it’s far too expensive’. Sundays are the worst. We will be scaling back our mobile sites; there’s too much content on them anyway and mobile’s not converting.”
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