Tui’s decision to keep brochures is like holding back an internet tide of its own creation, says Steve Endacott.
In the 1990s, when travel agents worked from black and green Viewdata terminals, brochures were an essential part of the sales process.
We used to talk about three stages for booking a holiday: dream, research, book.
The dream stage has always been a weakness of the booking journey.
Historically, it often comprised conversations with friends and families in the pub or at the school gate, although dedicated TV travel channels and programmes like Wish You Were Here also helped shape destination selection.
Customers then wandered down the high street to pick up a range of brochures to complete the research stage and most would then return to the same shop to book, even though by the late 1990s tour operators were trying to erode this by advertising direct booking numbers in brochures.
The high street lost out on ‘late’ allocation-on-arrival bookings because the customer did not need to see brochure pictures.
This allowed Teletext-fulfilled call centres with lower overheads and more-convenient opening times to dominate the late-booking sector, until it was superseded in turn by more-convenient internet booking.
An average cost of £1 per brochure and 20 brochures per booking created a high cost of sale which encouraged major tour operators to invest in online channels at the expense of shops.
The roll out of high-speed broadband in the last 10 years has also allowed Tui to develop excellent video content which, when combined with millions of detailed user reviews, makes the online experience far superior to traditional brochures.
So why, after pushing so hard to scrap brochures, has Tui reversed its position and announced it will continue to produce brochures?
I think the answer is that customers’ purchasing habits have been slower to evolve than expected and brochures still facilitate the high-street booking process in the following ways:
A key weakness of most travel websites remains that you need to know where you want to go before you can search.
Brochures offer ‘flickability’ with customers able to scan prices and pictures for a whole range of destinations quickly and effectively allowing them to help shape the ‘dream’ stage.
Holidays are the most expensive annual purchase but end with customers leaving a shop with nothing tangible except a promise to deliver a holiday months later.
Brochures act as a psychological voucher that allows customers to show friends and family what they have purchased.
Brochures create an ethical bond between customer and shop as they remind customers of the effort the travel agent has put into assisting them with their holiday selection, which often leads them back to the shop to complete the transaction.
This is one of the reasons high street shops convert 25%-40% of customers who walk through their doors even though few book on the first visit.
Conversely, online competitor sites are only one click away and, because no emotional bond is created, customers feel free to shop around leaving conversion levels at a sub-1%.
Even given the above, Tui’s decision to continue to produce brochures feels like the action of a King Canute, trying to hold back an internet tide of their own creation. Bluntly, the better Tui’s online experience becomes the faster its shop network is going to close.
So although I see a strong future for independent agents selling complex holidays such as long haul, touring and cruising, from multiple suppliers, but it’s hard to predict such a healthy future for employees of major tour operators’ retail chains.