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The ‘re-rise’ of the retail travel agent: What’s behind the sudden influx of new high street agents?

Are travellers becoming overwhelmed by the amount of information (and misinformation) on the internet?

Late last year the Daily Telegraph, one of the UK’s largest newspapers, reported that the high street travel agent is making a comeback. Although the paper questioned whether the trend will last, it comes following the opening of new branches by several major high-street travel agencies in the UK, including Hays Travel and Flight Centre.

So, what is driving these openings – and is the Telegraph right to call people’s current use of high street agents “a trend”? Did they ever really ‘go away’? And is this something happening in the UK only, or all major source markets around the world?

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To the extent to which high street agents are ‘back’ though – at least in the UK – one reason could be that travellers are becoming overwhelmed by the amount of information (and misinformation) on the internet, and therefore want an expert to help guide them. Eugene Ko, marketing director at Phocuswright, says: “Booking travel has become increasingly complex.

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“This is not even so much to do with the ‘pandemic effect’ anymore – there’s a colossal amount of information and inspiration available online, through countless different sources. Although most people do enjoy an element of research and choice when booking travel, using a travel agent can eliminate the need for extensive online trawling, as the agent can handle all the details and bookings on behalf of the customer. This convenience saves time and effort, especially for complex itineraries or group travel.”

It could also be a result of better technology that’s now available to agents. Gareth Matthews, Chief Marketing Officer at global travel distribution provider Didatravel says: “Gone are the days when travel agents booked flights and hotels via a green screen.

“Distribution companies and intermediaries have long since evolved to offer far more advanced retailing technology, giving ​agents the ability to find highly personalised deals for their customers. Travellers are starting to learn this all over again, returning to the experience and advantages of booking travel in a physical store.

“Artificial intelligence and automation, while often heralded as a threat to travel agents, also offers huge potential, ensuring agents have better information at their fingertips which in turn will free up more of their time to offer a more personalised service.”

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Travellers may also think that a travel agent has access to special deals and prices. Evren Oktay, Founder & COO from pax2night  – an accommodation bedbank that is part of Yuppi Travel – explains that “travel agents often have access to exclusive deals and offers that may not be available online, and this isn’t likely to change any time soon.

“They have established relationships with travel suppliers and can negotiate better prices or perks for their clients. Suppliers should take note that while direct bookings can return a higher profit per booking, the relationships agents have with their travellers – and the reach high street stores have – is likely to mean more sales.”

Certainly there seems to be a consensus that the quality on offer from retail travel agents has increased in recent years and one reason is that they can now offer ancillary extras for the in-destination experience, points out Craig Everett, Founder and CEO from Holibob, the experiences tech provider to airlines and OTAs.

“Agents have upped their game a lot overall to remain competitive and one very successful strategy has been to start cross-selling or including in packages all the little in-destination extras such as activities, tours and theme-park tickets. But not only do you need to offer this, you need to have an intuitive and integrated booking flow that agents can easily use along with automated post-sale technology in place.”

Sami Doyle from TMU Management, a data-driven insurance intermediary specialising in travel, says that it’s also about trust. “The near two years of chaos that COVID unleashed on travel plans for people was a bit of a wake-up call for anyone who’d booked direct or even through an online travel agency – suddenly discovering that customer service was non-existent, cancellations and refunds were hard if not impossible, and in some cases bankruptcies were leading to people not getting what they’d paid for.

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“By contrast, the trust factor with high-street retailers or anyone where you’re dealing with an individual, even if remotely, is so much higher.That’s also in part because of the perception of security, that you’d have someone to complain to or ask for a refund. Nonetheless, if you’re one of those agents or agency chains you’d better make sure that you really do have in place the right travel trade insurance and packaging protections – as if you don’t and word gets around, even just a few isolated cases of problems could undermine your best asset, your reputation.”

When it comes to the operational side of things, Koert Grasveld at global B2B travel payments company Terrapay points out that there’s better payments tech and back office services now available to smaller agencies and even sole traders. “Not only does the agency have to take payments from the consumer but then they have to settle with suppliers, perhaps many of them just for one booking, via a B2B payment too.

“Technology that used to be available to just the biggest players, for example virtual credit cards, is now available to even independent, self-employed agents working from home.This levels the playing field a lot, making a retail agent as price competitive as an online one in that sense at least.”

Looking beyond the UK shores, Juan Socas from PriceTravel, one of Latin America’s biggest B2B and B2C sellers of travel, points out that in Latin America certainly the travel agent never went out of fashion, with estimates of up to 75 percent of travel sold face-to-face or by telephone still. “Don’t make the mistake of thinking that Latin America doesn’t have a sizeable middle class and that all the travel sold is cheap, local trips – that’s far from true.

“There’s huge demand for international travel to the US and even Europe and such travellers often want the reassurance of a personal travel agent handling everything.” says Juan. “Based on our experience there’s lots of other examples of such demand around the world, certainly outside of your typical top 10 biggest economies – so if you’re a hotel or other type of travel supplier don’t overlook the potential here.”

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As a final thought Janis Dzenis from price comparison travel website WayAway points out that whilst there’s always a market for retail travel agencies, lots of people still want their online version and sometimes the best value can be found for the more adventurous types searching for cheap trips, discounts or to purchase with loyalty points.

“It doesn’t have to be all about the big three OTAs or the high-street retailer, there is something in-between and there are lots of online sellers set up specifically for certain niches and focusing on a particular demographic or geography. Indeed many of those are now a hybrid of online and offline, meaning you can browse online and go into the shop to book or vice versa. The line is blurred nowadays to some extent between online and offline.”

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