A recent press release set me thinking. It was publicising a Chartered Institute of Marketing debate titled Travel Agents - Are They Past Their Sell-By Date? The debate is on Jan 25th in London. Click the link to find out more. I plan to go and assuming I do (they have kindly offered me a press pass) I will write up my thoughts. It's a very pertinent question in my opinion.

Just as many commentators reckon the internet means the end for journalists (anyone can be a writer now there are no barriers to publication) others have painted a similarly bleak picture for high street travel agents. (Anyone can book a holiday now every travel brand known to mankind has a web page and a booking engine.)

The net is indeed challenging a lot of old business models, but I remain convinced that many of the old basic rules for business success remain. If anything some of them are more important now than ever before.

I’ve blathered plenty already about how hard it is to find the right holiday on-line. Right now hundreds of thousands of people are probably lost in the usual January maze of different travel websites promising similar things, user reviews providing hugely different opinions of the same properties and booking engines that are so slow by the time you come to check out and pay, your holiday has gone up in price. There’s still a huge and immediate need for trustworthy, appropriate advice. Let’s face it, we aren’t talking about blowing a few bucks on a £10 book from Amazon or a £2 download from iTunes.

For Brits in particular the annual holiday is one of the year’s biggest expenses. Not something you want to take risks with. You want to be sure you’re getting the right holiday for you – at the right price.

If, instead of spending literally days lost in the online holiday maze you could sit down with a travel professional who knew your budget and understood your needs – in particular the ‘softer’ stuff like who your neighbours might be if you book at a particular resort or whatever – wouldn’t you happily buy from them? And, if it saved you all that time and frustration... maybe pay a little more?

So what impact has the net had on the high street travel agent? There’s been consolidation that’s for sure – big names like Lunn Poly and Going Places have disappeared. But where’s the innovation? It all feels incredibly entrenched and backward looking. (Very much like the financial services sector – as if rebranding all the Abbey, B&B and Alliance and Leicester branches as Santander will make a scrap of difference to customers?).

Ironically, the web is driving a desire it can’t fulfil right now. The huge impact of social media has meant that customers are increasingly demanding ‘real person contact’, service that is customised to them as individuals, service that treats them as real people, not numbers on a spreadsheet. Of course, no travel website is anywhere near offering this kind of service, no matter how empowering this new technology is or how wholeheartedly a web-based travel company embraces it.

In the meantime I see opportunities on the high street.

What would the ultimate travel agency look like? For me it would offer help with the complete experience. So many internet businesses now make as much of their profit selling the ancillary stuff alongside their main product – travel agents are completely missing the (clue)train here.

So let’s focus our Travelstore 2.0 on people and activities NOT destinations! How about separate areas for Family Holidays, Student Holidays, Short Breaks, Adventure and Activity Holidays, Cruises and so on; with staff who are passionate about their market sector and really understand it. Make sure they sell a vast range of different brands of holiday – so it’s clear there’s no incentive to sell me one particular trip over another. And offer me all the other stuff that goes with holidays – guidebooks, travel magazines, backpacks, sunglasses, sunscreen, insect repellent, great books to read on the beach, music to drink my sundowner G&T to, travel insurance, airport parking, a funky bikini for my wife. And how about a playzone to keep the kids quiet whilst I’m chatting to an advisor?

Guess what? You’ll get me coming in months before I buy a holiday... I’ll end up buying guidebooks and gear and who knows what else long before I book my break. And, suddenly buying a holiday will be fun... like browsing in other retail sectors... dreaming of awesome trips to amazing places. What could be better for brightening up a dull Saturday afternoon?

Wouldn’t it be nice if buying a holiday could be inspiring?

Would this idea work in practice? Well clearly there are risks, and it requires some serious investment... but stop a moment and think about the fact that it's already happening.

There will be literally thousands of people visiting travel shows like Destinations and the Adventure Travel Show over the next month or so. (Not to mention the Ski Shows back in the autumn.) Here they will find all manner of brands offering all sorts of holidays, face to face advice, in-depth presentations, kit for sale, talks from travel presenters, gear demonstrations, photography competitions and more.

And, get this... a significant number of these customers are paying to get in!

What would your ultimate travel agent store look like? And would this concept work in practice?

11 thoughts on “Time for a new kind of travel agent?

  1. Good post - a few things:

    1) Perception is everything and consumers assume they can get a cheaper price via that thing called the interweb. This isn't necessarily so...

    2) Almost every study indicates that consumers want to browse more than ever, especially so for holidays. Research puts the number of sites people visit before booking a holiday at anything between 10 and 20, so indicating that choice (price?) needs to be varied, something people do not automatically assume is available in an agency as they only sell holidays they get commission for.

    3) The smart agents are those that offer experience, knowledge, ability to book complicated products (niche holidays, cruise etc).

  2. Yup, good and timely piece.

    Is travel retail maturing or has it polarised between transaction-based(call-centre,web etc) and relationship-based(face-to-face)? It's hard to say but there are some good signs both in terms of uses of technology and attitude. A number of companies now pay their staff based on customer feedback and the Net Promoter Score as opposed to just paying commission.

    The smart agents are those that know their customers and can claim a relationship with them. One travel company contacts its customers about 25 times a year.

    Sadly, those retailers are few and far between. When was the last time any of you were contacted by a travel agent?

  3. Sorry Jeremy. The agency you seem to be describing...

    Separate areas for Family Holidays, Student Holidays, Short Breaks, Adventure and Activity Holidays, Cruises and so on; a vast range of different brands of holiday; guidebooks, travel magazines, backpacks, sunglasses, sunscreen, insect repellent, great books to read on the beach, music to drink your sundowner G&T; travel insurance, airport parking, and funky bikini; plus childrens' playzone

    ... seems like exactly the out-of-town trading estate warehouse experience I would run a thousand miles to avoid! In what possible way does that sound like the embodiment of personal service?

    I agree that consumer travel events and exhibitions are a fantastic way for holiday-makers to find inspiration and expertise, but not in some kind of permanent setting.

    For the 'personal' touch you want, I think the 'ultimate travel agent' model is much more likely to look a bit like Travel Counsellors. IE Individual and independent travel agents with whom you can establish a relationship, who get to know you and the ways you like to travel (as an individual, as a family, on a break, on a ski trip, etc) and, if they don't have it, can call in specific expertise they might not have from their network.

  4. I agree with Alastair. Been there, done that with the warehouse idea. Travel Counsellors, on the other hand, has had enormous successs despite some scepticism when it was first launched. Guess what? After 25 years of booking direct or on the web (when I have to), I found that it was far more relaxing and time efficient to book at my local independent travel agent, Chobham Travel in Surrey. The Air Malta flight cost the same as Ryanair's fare and had the added bonus of reserved seats and a hot meal. Having flown Ryanair the previous year with two 11 year olds, it was not an experience I wished to repeat. Horses for courses I feel. And, like Linda, I have never had a call from a travel agent.

  5. Kathryn - when you say 'been there done that'... do you mean that someone has tried this concept or something like it? Will be honest and say I'm hardly an expert on travel agency businesses... can you add more detail?

    Alastair - you might run a mile... but you're a seasoned travel writer. I think for those people just above the package brigade (bit more cash, and/or slightly older kids, and/or more adventurous outlook) this kind of concept would be great. BTW I never said anything about out of town either (tho I think that's not such a bad idea!) I was thinking more along the lines of the Nike Store or Apple stores... flagship stores in very high footfall locations. That generate a lot of PR buzz and interest too. (Clearly very expensive in terms of real estate! So maybe the margins in travel wouldn't support the idea.)
    And you say: 'consumer travel events are a great way to find inspiration... but not in a permanent setting' Why not?
    The travel advisor... yep absolutely, but I can't see that working on a more mass-market level. What I'm suggesting is something in between the one-to-one bespoke advisor service and the current high street/web experience which - the odd independent agent aside - is just wall to wall brochures pushing the same old product with little to really help you choose (whether an actual high street store or an online travel website)

  6. Great post Jeremy. You are entirely correct – the traditional travel agent is becoming outmoded, while the on-line experience leaves much to be desired. Booking a holiday is no longer fun, it is a chore and an ongoing and frustrating drama.

    We are planning to launch our solution to the dilemma later this month, recognising that the expertise of travel agents still has a powerful part to play in combination with the communication potential of the web.

    Our site will allow customers to specify their travel requirements in detail, against which agents can bid, making personalised offers in the form of a tailored on-line brochure.

    Transparent competition assures customers of value, whilst access to agent expertise allows customers to short-cut endless hours of tedious on-line searching and diabolical user experience.

    We are expecting this to address a clear gap in the market between the somewhat outmoded 1:1 experience, and the increasingly cluttered on-line experience.

    We’ll let you know how we get on, once we’ve faced the acid test in front of the travel customer.

  7. Top article as per Jeremy. So as a travel agent for the teenies we should have or offer:

    1. Great customer experience - (I agree - we get some great feedback).
    2. Great Customer Relationship Management - pax of mine texted me on Xmas day to change a flight - I know a lot of my pax personally and know what they drink and travel wise what they want to do before they do half the time (listening helps too). And readers I married one. Above and beyond that one...
    3. Highly experienced consultants - average 5 year experience with degree level education (and good consultants in London cost £25-30K)
    4. A niche - round the world flights for us.
    5. No 1 in google - plus the rather expensive associated Google adwords buy needed to stay No 1.
    6. Highly active in social media - we're trying.
    7. Ultra competitive pricing or the perception of it - on lower margins than before.
    8. Shop in a decent area with a big footfall - we have a shop in Islington (with a new carpet - am v proud - with original window posters - that I designed on photoshop elements - just added!) but weirdly the shop footfall can clash with the niche activity of roundtheworldflights.com. I can't tell you how much my heart drops when some well-meaning soul mouths "I want to go somewhere hot...".

    A large & successful adventure tour company tried the NIKE TOWN/APPLE STORE retail experience in Islington too - probably with more success that us if I'm honest - but they had mega buck budgets to start with. Still they get a lot of pax who are just browsing and maybe liking the brand. Hard to monetize or measure that though....

    IMHO retail and talking to a really knowledgeable consultant works well after someone has seen and done their research online or by phone or by email. (Bit dead mouse sarnie but at roundtheworldflights.com for example).

    Another thing to mention about retail is the rather sad story of Borders – great to sit in supping lattes in their very own Starbucks – especially with screaming nephews - and browse and have a coffee - problem was everyone was buying their books from Amazon afterwards!

    9. A fresh constantly updated website with added video, twitter, blogs, facebook - ie loads of stickability - again we're trying
    10, ATOL and IATA bonding – not easy for new entrants these days
    11. Be open late and 7 days a week - for this I take the inspiration of a Beijing Travel Agent who sold me a train ticket - and shamed me when he said he shut 7 hours - a week.
    12. Be ahead of the game

    Not enough hours in the day for that lot, is there? I still think most decent travel agents (and I know half a dozen good ones) will do well, especialy in their niche markets, even if it is in an extremely tough market. It does strikes me that most TAs are morphing into Quasi-tour operators – some online most offline - seems the future to me - control and monetize your own product with a decent and updated site, a decent shop, great staff and a good user experience. We're just middle men after all - an interlocutar between those who supply and those who want(the pax) - so if you want a decent RTW, from a good company - you know where to come.

    Cheers Stuart

    ps looking forward to seeing offermeatrip.com Mark - it's an intriguing idea.

  8. Hi

    Great post, and I entirely agree that there is a hole screaming to be filled here. The closest I have seen is some walk in travel agent stores in Paris, where you get a cappucino, loads of travel books to browse (not brochures, though some of those too), some free wifi and PCs, Chopin in the background, and some lovely looking people (lets leave it at that!) waiting to serve you. Windows full of gorgeous super size images of Aman resorts, and no ghastly text or offers.

    Kuoni seem to be trialling upmarket looking agencies in my local high street, and I heard Black Tomato had a walk in store. If someone gave me 5m quid guess what, I would open a chain of these feel good travel agencies. Who wouldn't walk into a store with enticing hotel images in the window and a cappu machine in the corner and a stack of CN Travel magazines on the rack? Above all, you could go in and book hotels from consultants who had actually stayed in them, or knew someone who had.

    Anyone out there got £5m? Actually one would do...

  9. @ James. I already emailed my pet wealthy business entrepreneur but he is out of the country at the moment (seriously!)
    However one of the points Stuart makes above... which I was thinking about too (honest) is the Borders example. Clearly, even with a great retail presence based around experience ratheer than stacked shelves you are still vulnerable to pure-play online competitors.
    @ Stu - is the large adventure tour company that opened this kind of a more experience-based store still open there? Did the concept work? I do think the one sector that has tiptoed down this route probably is independent/backpack travel. What I'd love to see is someone try it for say Family Travel. I'd like say Tui/Thomson to stick their necks out and open a concept store... AND sell product from competitors too.

  10. Odd - won't let me sign in with twitter? Well no point being coy Jeremy - its Intrepid and their store on Upper Store is more a concept store - you can browse idea, check their site online, talk to their consultants. And it looks great too. I think the original idea was lets look at another form of distribution away from heavy media buys (we were all getting hammered by TNT and News International - fair enough the ads worked then). But talk to Daniel at Intrepid. He helped set it up and it has evolved with some great talk nights, expert nights etc. Worth a visit too. I'm a fan.

    The truth is retail has to pay for itself. There's a Foxtons opposite us that has branded itself as an "Estate Agents cafe". You can go in, chat to someone - usually someone desirable in high heels if thats your bag - ho hum, watch Sky News, have a beer or expensive mineral water or cappuccino or frappocino or whatever you desire. They'll also hammer the seller for 3% of any sale, which on an average £800K flat round here equates to £24,000. So they can afford to be generous with the free Tizer and In Bru. I would too. Unfortunately we don't work on that size of gross profit (5-6% stat fans).

    I do think that if the Maths worked then a "retail experience" would have been done. Maybe if the cost travel had kept up with the rest of the economy instead of coming down in price. In 1990 I did a RTW for £1400. The same itinerary today would cost £1250.

    But its not all gloom. We're mentally busy!


  11. Excellent blog and very thoughtful commentary here. I agree with RTWFlights that messaging is important and putting that message where the eyeballs are is becoming crucial. Providing a superior customer service experience has served us well. Making our brand visible on the Internet and via social media provides a further edge. The entire travel agent industry has done a very poor job of messaging during the rise of Internet travel sites. Surveys show widespread dissatisfaction with the online booking experience. The business is there for the taking for those with the knowledge and skills to make the entire process from concept to plan to booking easy, price competitive and satisfying. We are home based agents in the US catering to an affluent clientele and our business grew year over year in 2009. It looks to further increase for 2010. Chat me up on Twitter: @tomtravel2

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