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Self-service doesn’t mean no service

Martin Grant February 2010

Are traditional retail travel agents an endangered species?

How is the travel industry evolving to cater for an increasingly online-savvy audience?

And so the new year begins. Back at work, planning the year ahead. What’s the first thing most people do after returning to work? Plan their next holiday of course! That’s exactly what I did a few weeks back, and it got me to thinking about how retailers are (or aren’t) bridging the gap to online channels, specifically in the travel industry.   Not that long ago you went along to meet your retail travel agent face to face because that was the only way you could do it. If you got on and they didn’t leave you stranded in transit for 18 hours waiting to make a connection, you went back to them next year with your holiday plans. That was how ‘loyalty’ worked back in the 80s. 

How things have changed. We all know how easy it is to purchase flights online, particularly for domestic travel, but there are also lots of options internationally too. While the self-service nature of it is very convenient, it’s all very transactional – fly a-to-b, holiday package here, grab a seat there.

We’ve been planning a trip to Vietnam and Cambodia. I’m definitely not a 'tour person’ so I did considerable research over the Christmas holidays. As well as the traditional guide book resource there is now a wealth of travel information online – blogs and you tube videos, and which provides a plethora of recommendations and star ratings, all from real travellers.

But who do you trust? All this information is posted by strangers and there is no accountability for the reviewers. Some even sound like they’ve been blatantly penned by the hotel owners themselves. And should you believe one Kiwi’s review ahead of the majority view of a bunch of Americans?

Those concerns aside, and having done our research, we knew where we wanted to go. But the route we’d settled on required a bit more organisation than simply purchasing return airfares. And it was at this point, when we we’re ready to start plotting the different legs of our journey, that things got a bit more tricky. I didn’t just want a transactional experience, I wanted advice on how to string it all together, ideally from someone I could trust. It would be reassuring to find a travel agent who’s travelled in the countries we were going to visit. But how could I find that consultant? And ideally I didn’t want to have to visit a store. Could I achieve this online?

I started my quest by sending detailed queries via the websites of several of the large retail travel agencies, expecting that the specific destinations mentioned would flag I needed a pretty specific response. I also emailed one agent at a local agency.

The response from one agent revealed just how little she knew about Vietnam when she suggested flights that back-tracked several times – I seriously doubt she even consulted a map! Another responded with some helpful a-to-b prices with flight availability, but I could buy cheaper flights online myself. I received an out of office message from another agent for more than a week, without any alternative contact information provided. I’m still waiting for a reply to that one.

Getting increasingly frustrated, I started searching online to find any agents who might write blogs of their travels. I got excited to find one agency that does this, but when I got in touch they said they’d only be interested if I booked a tour, as they ‘don’t really cater for individuals’.

Maybe that’s the problem, that I’m an individual. But I know there are lots of people like me out there – independent travellers and internet/email users who want some advice. If we get the advice, surely the transaction comes as a matter of course?

So let’s run a check on my experience so far. Have any of the agents I’ve had contact with been where I’m trying to go? No. Have I had any useful advice on how to put my travel itinerary together? No. Have I been able to keep the process an online experience (that suits me) rather than visit the store? Well yes, in so much as I haven’t visited a store (yet). But then I haven’t actually got what I want and have encountered real shortcomings with regard to the service provided.

Without any point of difference when it comes to service, price becomes the only differentiator, which means margins must continue to get eroded in order for travel agencies to win business. Surely this model isn’t sustainable.

So is the travel industry purely a transactional business or is it in the service sector? Given my recent experience I think they need both qualities to survive.

Let’s imagine a travel agency that actively promotes agents specialised in specific destinations. They provide valuable advice based on their own knowledge and experience. I’d go there for sure. Then next year, provided I’d had a good experience, and even if I was going to a different destination, I’d go back to the same agency. When I did I’d expect the same level of personal service from another specialist agent for the new destination.

If that happened I’d be showing loyalty to a brand because I’d been delivered the experience I’d been promised – an experience I’m actively (but unsuccessfully) seeking out at the moment. And if the experience could be streamlined through a mix of online tools and personal contact I’d be even happier, because it would be making things even easier for me. And let’s not forget, it’s all about me because I’m the customer paying for the tickets and expertise.

But why isn’t anyone out there providing my ideal travel agent service? Perhaps I don’t understand enough about the sector. Maybe it’s not a sustainable business model. On the other hand, do the traditional big retail travel brands still have a secure market?

I went to a movie the other day called ‘Up in the air’ (the title is a happy coincidence!). When accused of being racist George Clooney said “I’m like my mother, I stereotype – it’s just quicker”. Through my recent experience I’ve made some pretty strong assumptions and formed a stereotype of the travel sector. Or, maybe I’ve pinpointed a significant gap in the market. I’ll let you decide. Bon Voyage.


reid 19 April 2011 at 8:24am

Carol go to the Vietnam consul nearest to you be refered to a specialist. Sometimes a good travel agent like myself can do research for you which includes travel portions, hotels, air cultural info and food-dinning. I have never sent a blog before but, I have several years in travel planning international intineraries and have also a degree in international studies/culture. I have never been to Vietnam but when I have customers who require really good info I contact reputable wholesale companies to Asia and the Consulates.

Good luck.

P.S this not an advertisment to get your business . In fact I am looking for an agency that needs to hire what is called an FIT specialist where they do nothing but research on travel planning.

What do you think?