Barrhead Travel president Jacqueline Dobson says Covid has accelerated the multi-channel approach

March 24, the first day of lockdown, seems a lifetime ago. As retailers, shops and offices closed, high streets became eerie places. But behind the scenes, and in homes of travel agents across the country, we were collectively rolling up our sleeves and getting ready to do what we do best – helping our customers.

Now, looking ahead to a post-Covid-19 world, I can’t imagine holidays without travel agents – whether high street agencies or remote advisors. We have gained a decade’s worth of learnings over the last five months but one of the most important reminders has been to never underestimate the value of genuine relationships with your customers and the power of local community.

I’ve read news, with a heavy heart, about high street failures – in travel and other retail sectors. STA Travel entering administration last week was extremely saddening and we’re all thinking about our industry colleagues affected by this.

A crisis on this scale, undoubtedly, has a profound and dramatic effect on business and trading. But, as always, a crisis can present an opportunity to generate change and innovation – particularly now as we’re witnessing behavioural changes in society as things like social distancing and enhanced cleaning becomes the norm. People working in travel are some of the most resilient and passionate professionals and, despite challenges and failures right now, I’m certain our industry and, in particular, the high street travel agency model, will recover.

The new multi-channel

We must adapt to meet the high expectations in the new normal. We have always been a multi-channel retail business – offering online, telephone and in-store services – but now there’s a new dimension to what multi-channel means. Virtual appointments, online events, ultra-high-tech conferencing facilities, remote telephone apps and live chats are all now an integral part of our high street experience.

At Barrhead Travel, we’ve always kept ahead in terms of technology but, if you’d asked us about the aforementioned initiatives this time last year, we’d have thought they were a few years down the line.

We have trebled our technology in-store and behind the scenes in the last few months but its introduction will enhance our stores and complement the service we offer. Ultimately, it’s our people that drive our business forward, with cutting-edge technology complementing their expertise. The overwhelming sentiment from our customers affected by cancellations is relief to have been able to speak with a real expert who could handle everything.

Advice and protection

During crises, customers want to know there is someone, a true expert, they can speak with directly and that is the fundamental value a reputable travel agent can offer. We know some people still may not feel confident to visit shops, but that doesn’t mean they have to compromise on service when planning next year’s holiday from home. Virtual appointments will be popular for some time to come, and video technology will allow customers to video call their agent while abroad if they need.

Complementing the expert advice a reputable travel agent can offer is something savvy customers will not compromise on: financial protection. Many will realise that online bookings are not sufficiently protected financially and this will only strengthen the demand for trustworthy agents. We have a responsibility to our customers to ensure not only that their money is fully protected but that we’ll be there when things don’t go to plan.

The high street model will continue to thrive because of its importance to many local communities. People want to engage with local businesses, particularly when it comes to personal, emotive high-value purchases such as holidays. Whether customers visit us in person or speak with us virtually or via the phone, it’s clear local connections really resonate and are important for retaining good, loyal client relationships.

While we can’t foresee how or when travel will resume in volume, it’s certain that when it does begin to return, the knowledgeable travel agent will be at the helm of its recovery.