The Evolution that saved Travel Agents

I recently came across a presentation I gave 18 ago to a group of financial analysts, to explain the various role’s played in the holiday booking process

It talked about three stages of booking a holiday, “Dream, Research and book” and looked at the roles travel agents, call centres and online players played in the booking process.

At the time I was fairly dismissive of Travel agents, who I described as “Inconvenient Brochure Warehouses” that acted as intermediaries for either there in-house tour operator owners or where “Independent” selling a range of pre-built from multiple  holiday companies.

I wrongly predicted a rapid decline of high street agencies, as more customers migrated from “Walking”, to “Talking” to a call centre or “Clicking” to book unemotive travel online.

To be fair this “CWT” migration circle did occur, but ironically the biggest shift in the longer term has been from talking to a call centre to booking online via intuitive and content rich OTA sites that are delivered via high speed broadband connectivity. Although the overall number of High Street Travel agents has sharply declined, Independent agents have survived or even thrived once you include the home working sector.

To me the reason why is simple.

Travel Agents have evolved from being intermediaries, to become “Travel Advisors” who offer a massive range of “Dynamically packaged” holidays or specialist tour operators whom offer differentiated and complex product that is not easily booked online.I personally think the key element is not the product sold, but the word “Advisor”.

In an internet enabled world where online sites offer millions of holiday options, “Personalisation” and “Recommendation” are key online buzz words and the primary focus of most IT development teams.

Online players struggle with the above, because most customers search their sites without ever revealing who they are and have to know what they want before the can search, severely restricting the data required for personalisation.

Contrast this to a shop environment, where the customer is sat in front of the “Advisor”, who with experience can often identify the right products by just looking at them and can ask them much more complex questions about what types of holidays and destinations they are willing to consider and flexibility over departure dates to get the right holiday.

Good travel agents can also influence the “Dream” stage by recommending destination customers may want to visit and as all online players know, the earlier you capture a customer in their holiday booking process, the more loyal they become. That’s not to say some customers won’t just walk out of the shop and simple holidays online with an OTA or directly with supplier.

However, “Advise” does have value, particularly when applied to more complex or higher spend holidays, where customers still want the reassurance of advice from a travel “Expert” before booking.

Lastly and probably most importantly, online advertising costs continue to rise and are now so high that the average “success only” commission paid to travel agents, mean that agents are again the preferred distribution for many cruise lines, most touring and adventure operators, not to mention new entrants like the OTA On the Beach.

The mantra of “If you can’t beat them, state using them again, has never been more true”



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