With travel becoming more complicated as a result of conflicting and constantly changing coronavirus regulations, agents can be more valuable than ever, writes Anthony Pearce
In March, like many others, I was forced to cancel a trip to Spain after the Foreign Office issued a warning against all but essential travel to the holiday hotspot – advice it removed in early July then reinstated, amid huge controversy, about three weeks later.
Although I was keeping track of the dark clouds over travel; the world’s borders closing and the introduction of lockdowns across Europe (but not yet in the UK), my travel agent emailed as soon as the advice changed to notify me. He said I could rebook, but was honest about the prospect of things changing any time soon, recommending a refund. I was able to leave all arrangements with him and, although the airline took weeks to return the money, he kept chasing until it arrived. Later in the year, a travel industry friend, fatigued by a number of cancelled holiday plans, told me: “To be honest, I usually only book with agents when I’m going long-haul – from now on, I’ll book everything through them.”
Over the past few decades, much has been written about the decline of the travel agent, but relatively little about their changing roles, such as the move from holiday booker to travel expert, high-street agent to homeworker.
There remains a generational divide, with older holidaymakers more likely to book through an agent – demonstrated by the fact that sectors such as cruise, which mostly attracts a 50-plus market, are more reliant on the trade than other parts of the industry. However, younger holidaymakers are more likely to book through an agent when it comes to once-in-a-lifetime trips – holidays too important to get wrong.
“Special occasion trips such as honeymoons are in demand and that’s where agents really come into their own,” says Derek Jones, chief executive of Kuoni parent Der Touristik UK. “People don’t want to take a risk with this sort of trip, so travel experts bring an informed view to the conversation about where to go and what experiences are open to enjoy and what may still be restricted.”
In its 2019 Travel Trends Report, ABTA hailed the “return of the trusted travel expert”, with its research demonstrating that 45 per cent of ABTA’s 2,000 interviewees said they were more confident booking with a travel professional. When furlough ends and the dust settles, it is going to be an incredibly difficult time for travel agents, and the industry as a whole, but it does also represent an opportunity for travel agents to re-establish themselves as an indispensable cog in the booking process.
“Looking ahead to a post-Covid-19 world, I simply cannot imagine holidays without travel agents – whether that be high street agencies or remote advisors,” says Jacqueline Dobson, president of Barrhead Travel. “If the last few months has taught us anything, it’s demonstrated that the value of genuine relationships with your customers and that community should never be underestimated. During times of crisis, customers want to know that there is someone who they can speak directly with – a true expert – and that will be the fundamental value that a reputable travel agent can offer moving forward.”
Agents have to offer a concierge-service – asking holidaymakers of all ages, ‘Why would you book it by yourself when you can get expert help for free?’
Knowledge and experience
“The world is now complicated and it’s easy to miss something that could be essential to the customer travelling,” says Sheena Whittle, head of The Personal Travel Agents at Co-operative Travel. “Travel agents are on hand to help explain the new complexities of travelling and offer support to their customers. Agents have the benefit of years of experience and will always be on top of all the guidelines and any restrictions in place. Travel agents are also getting valuable feedback from their customers and industry colleagues every day on what it is like in various destinations.”
The experience of navigating changing advice and chasing refunds will no doubt last long in the memory of holidaymakers, encouraging them to use an agent who can do all the hard work for them. “Customers booking through a travel agent haven’t been a number, they are a valued customer and have been cared fzor by their agent helping them change their plans or apply for a refund,” says Whittle.
“Each destination is likely to have different requirements about visas, health checks and isolation processes for tourists, so travel experts will be need to help customers navigate their way through any new travel requirements particularly for multi-centre itineraries,” adds Jones. “We know that flexibility is right up there as one of the most important things right now. There’s a whole range of things connected to coronavirus which might impact on people’s trips – a destination has a second wave and has to lock down again, customers being contacted as part of the track and trace scheme to say they’ve been in contact with someone who is ill before they head off through to becoming ill while they’re away, so that’s something agents will need to help reassure customers about – that they are there to help manage the booking if anything changes,” he says.
Operators have been quick to adopt a culture of flexibility with holiday “promises” introduced by everyone from G Adventures to Tui. Travel agents are well-placed to decode these peace-of-mind policies, explain the implication of Foreign Office advice changes and travel corridors list, and if things change reschedule holidays or handle refunds. Independent agents “won’t close the door or cut off the phones at 5pm when there’s an emergency; they will work through the night if necessary to help their customers,” says Whittle.
Simone Clark, vice president of Global Supply at Planet Cruise, one of the UK’s major players in the cruise industry, says that pre-Covid “expertise and personalised service” were one of the main reasons customers opted to book through an agent. “However, recent months have highlighted that it’s more important than ever to book with a reputable travel agent who offers ABTA and ATOL protection, as we offer financial security and a safety net if your travel plans change while you are abroad,” she says. “By booking with a travel agent, the money for all the elements of your holiday is protected and we, or the tour operator we have booked via, are obliged to cover any costs to bring you home should any part of your holiday be cancelled, changed or not be possible to fulfil.”
Dobson agrees: “Complementing the expert advice that a reputable travel agent can offer is something that the vast majority of customers will not compromise on for holidays in the future: financial protection. Many customers will realise that online bookings are not sufficiently covered by financial protection and this will only strengthen the resurgence of reputable travel agents.”
The continued uncertainty around travel means holidaymakers have more questions than ever. There are too many permutations, too many complications, too many changes and too much nebulous decision-making from the government and too much confusion in the media for a one-size-fits-all approach in the present time. Aside from the travel corridors list changing regularly, at first leaving the industry and media guessing about the criteria for inclusion and removal, it’s become clear that holidaymakers aren’t au fait with the idea of Foreign Office advice in general and its effects on insurance. The worry is that people, overwhelmed by it all, will just decide not to travel at all. Everyone has different questions that need to be answered individually.
“We’ve taken a personal approach throughout the crisis, calling everyone who had holidays booked with us so we could talk to them about their options and work with them to either re-book for later dates or cancel if there were no other options,” says Jones, noting that “customers will place a high value on expert advice from people and brands they trust”.
It’s difficult to know what the future holds for travel agents, overall, but those who can establish themselves as trusted travel experts can emerge well from this uncertain time. Since the easing of lockdown, operators and agents have been offering appointment-only advice in a bid to limit numbers in shops, as well as scheduled video calls. This could prove to be a significant change – after all, what other free expert advice is handing out without making an appointment? The current situation may continue to change the perception around agents from someone you simply book your holiday with to someone who can provide inspiration, do all the heavy lifting, offer counsel and, crucially, reassurance. “I see a clear space for trusted agents, provided they are on top of their game and able to offer real expertise, destination insight and support for customers as we’re likely to be managing our lives around Covid-19 well into the New Year,” says Jones.
We’ll certainly see a rise in the number of homeworkers, but Dobson, meanwhile, is confident the brick-and-mortar agency will remain a fixture in towns. “I firmly believe that the high-street model will continue to thrive because of its position and importance to many local communities. Local people want to engage with local businesses and local employees – particularly when it comes to personal and emotive high-value purchases such as holidays.” She admits that the chaos that followed the lockdowns of March were a learning curve, and believes dealing with the fallout has only strengthened their position. “Like many other agencies, we had tens of thousands of customers to support and that meant that, sometimes, our customers felt frustration at having to wait longer than usual to speak with one of our team. But the over-riding sentiment that is shining through is that our customers were relieved to be able to speak to a real expert who could handle everything for them.”
In this uncertain age, when many are wary of travelling again, agents have a crucial role to play in saving the industry.