Once upon a time, you couldn’t walk through any town centre in the UK without passing at least three different travel agencies. These days, they are becoming harder and harder to spot on our high streets. Nowadays, holidaymakers are spoilt for choice, with an abundance of very competitively priced online travel websites. With 41 travel agencies and tour operators going bust in the past year in the UK, is the Internet finally putting our high-street travel agencies out of business?
Most agencies who have gone bust in the last few years have been package-holiday-orientated firms like Lunn Poly, who were the largest chain in the country until they went bankrupt in 2005. Tour operators have also suffered, with major operators Holidays 4 UK and Dream Holidays ceasing trading at the end of last year. Even high-street giant Thomas Cook is struggling since shares in the company slumped by more than 70 per cent at the end of last year, prompting a loan agreement of £100m from 17 of the UK’s banks. While interim chief executive, Sam Weihagen blames the Eurozone crisis and a downturn in tourism in the Middle East and North Africa for the company’s problems, it can’t be denied that the rising trend of booking online is partly to blame.
Younger tech-savvy people have been leading the trend for a while, not only to save money but also to give them the freedom to create their itinerary exactly as they want it. However, it is the recession that has led to an increase in this trend amongst older people, as people who may previously have preferred the travel agent experience now trawl the internet looking for the cheapest possible package they can find, often by searching different sites and purchasing flights, hotels and car-hire separately to create the best deal. These are people who, pre-recession were happy to pay a little bit extra for the luxury of having everything organised for them. These days that is not a luxury many can afford. Sure, there will always be the old couple that come in to book their week in Malta every year without fail, but even these customers are becoming rarer, as older people are grudgingly turning to the Internet in an attempt to snap up a bargain. Margaret Swinley, 68, was a regular Thomas Cook customer for over 40 years, but has since turned to websites like lastminute.com and onthebeach.com for her holiday needs.
She says: “We go to Crete every year in June and always enjoyed going to the travel agent in the Winter to book the holiday but we just can’t afford to do that anymore. Now we usually book on lastminute.com because they’re always a good £40 cheaper. My daughter usually has to help me book it but I am getting the hang of it!”
However, it’s not all bad news, the rise in the popularity of more adventurous travel such as round-the-world trips, safaris and tours to unusual destinations has seen adventure travel agents flourish, even during the recession. Adventure specialists STA Travel and Trailfinders are positively booming. Trailfinders, which has an average annual turnover of £400 million and employs 900 people worldwide, saw 2011 become its most profitable year yet and now plans to open two more high street shops in Liverpool and Chester. The company believes passionately in the importance of customer service, and this attitude has been vital in retaining their business and ensuring their reputation. Chairman of the company, Mike Gooly believes that the company’s unique selling point was the personal care and expertise Trailfinders’ consultants applied to devising holidays that matched peoples’ dreams.
He says: “We offered great value with no hidden costs – and we were always there to help in the rare event of unforeseen difficulties abroad. We earned people’s trust – attracting huge volumes of repeat business, with demand rocketing through personal recommendation.”
It’s not only a good reputation that will keep customers coming back, though. While package and short-haul holidays are often cheaper online, long haul travel can often be cheaper if booked through an agent, particularly if the itinerary is complicated. It is very hard to book round-the-world flights online, particularly if you have an unusual itinerary, STA Travel will simply take the customer’s itinerary and, if there is no Qantas/BA flight for a segment of their journey, they will just add in flights with other airlines and form a round-the-world ticket that way, something which would be impossible to do online. There is also the trust that customers put in travel consultants, many need advice and help planning their long-haul trip and that is as much the part of a job of a travel agent as selling holidays is.
Agents can also compete with the online market by offering services that the Internet cannot provide. Jackie Steadman from agency Traveltime World says that an extra her company offers is a chauffeur service to and from the airport, and on the return journey the driver will have the customer’s favourite newspaper waiting for him/her. This also provides an excellent opportunity to chat to the customer about their trip, gaining valuable feedback for the company.
The overall issue here seems to be adaptability, high-street agents need to recognise that the market is changing and they need to compete with the online bookings market with better deals and more flexibility. If they can achieve this then maybe they can start tempting people back through their doors once more.