Time for a new kind of travel agent?

How come travel agents only sell holidays? What about the rest of the travelling experience?

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?

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