High street travel agents should embrace online in store

As tumbleweed rolls through the high street travel agents, you have to question what it will take to get you back in-store. Is embracing the digital age the solution?

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Having just popped in to town to grab a sandwich during a typical lunch hour, I couldn’t help but notice that two high street travel agents were remarkably empty – actually make that entirely devoid of customers.

You could practically sense the tumbleweed drifting between the desks and the agents, far from busying themselves, were having a chat centre stage. Had I been in the market for a holiday, I certainly didn’t feel inclined to enter. It’s January – aren’t we all supposed to have SAD and be booking our summer breaks?

ABTA, The Travel Association estimate that 20 years ago, around 80 per cent of foreign holiday sales were made through high street travel agents but this has been dwindling ever since.

However in October last year, the Daily Mail reported that there has been a 10 per cent increase in people booking an overseas holiday through their high street travel agent in the past three years. I’m surprised – and apparently this is mainly made up of younger people.

I’ve been racking my brains about the rise and why it’s young people who are booking this way and the only convincing conclusion I can come to is this: that people just starting out in their careers have so many drains on their hard earned cash that they want to make sure they don’t waste it on a poor holiday or destination.  Whereas for the rest of us travel is more of a commodity and a badly chosen break gives us something to moan about on Facebook and then we move on.

Unless that is, the new wave of London travel agents is responsible: these salubrious outlets service clients using ipads and laptops from sofas in trendy surroundings without a brochure in sight.

However, more recent research from industry analyst GfK shows that high street travel agency sales are lagging behind other booking channels from last summer through to January:  bookings made online and through call centres are up 7%, while high street agency sales are 7% down.

I don’t really want to write that travel agents no longer have a place on the high street as our high streets need all the support they can get. But unless they modernise and tap into more modern ways of operating, they will become the dinosaurs of our town centres. The branding, the staff uniform, the shop windows all harks back to another era.

I also don’t think people necessarily have to choose between online or instore.  Seamless modern premises which cater to different markets and offer access to online research tools will surely appeal to more people.

After price, one of the main reasons people book online is to be able to research reviews and seek the opinion of fellow travellers and friends. Much of this knowledge is available at travel agents as Mary Portas found out in her review for the Telegraph but can be quite unexpected like a really good bottle of wine that has a fairly unappealing label.

It’s not often that we write about supporting the high street over online on this blog but in this case, multi media travel agency outlets with cafes, online research tools, child friendly play areas and less of the hard sell, might benefit travel agents and support the high street in tandem.

My vision is one of travel centres where you can while away an afternoon using tablets, free wifi, a selection of books, travel experts on hand with online chats available to people in location. That would get my vote and my bum on their seat.

What do you think? What will it take to get you back in your local High St travel agents?

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