I have been a travel agent for getting towards twenty years, and over that time we have seen a dramatic change in both how people travel, and the way we’re able to work. Yes, change happens and the industry is great at adapting to new challenges and there the disconnect begins.
The rise of the ‘independent travel agent’ voice really started in the 1980’s, up against the big names of the industry. Heading into the 90’s you had Lunn Poly aligned to Thomson, Going Places with Airtours, Thomas Cook and First Choice. Their sole intention to sell you a holiday from their parent tour operator, really before the start of the internet revolution.
Back then, it was a point of difference that an independent would be able to sell a much wider range of holidays, from a vast number of different tour operators. Many, with commercial agreements formed through consortiums, aimed at pooling resources, offering better financial terms and support. Even then belonging to an association or consortium you have financial incentives to sell particular products, so even ‘independents’ are directionally selling!
Since then, we have seen the internet thrive with both integrated tour operators, airlines and ‘online travel agents’ (which are not travel agencies by definition, take market share from traditional travel agencies on the ‘easy’ selling. Booking a flight, booking a hotel, maybe a beach holiday – all became easier to do online.
However, things have changed, the market has changed and the consumer has changed. The pandemic has taught us that we can work differently if we put our mind to it. People now expect different things and therefore we have to think, act and look different as well.
Just how many non-independent travel agencies do you know? There are very few, of the big four only one is left – TUI. Even Kuoni who have their own shops sell a wide selection of other tour operators in addition to their programme.
There is often talk about charging for our services, but when you’re pulled down by an umbrella term which is thirty years out of date, based on a completely different business model, how can you change?
We’re also stuck in a world where the industry has to put everyone in a box. You’re either a ‘high street agency’, ‘online’ or a ‘homeworker’. What if I work on the high street a couple of days a week, and work from home the rest of the time – what exactly am I then?
It’s time for travel agencies to be reinvented. We’re no longer stuck in the 80’s, even though some older people may still think in that way, but we’re a modern, forward-thinking industry with our clients and potential clients at the focus of our business. That’s everything from how we communicate, whom we choose to work with, abolishing ‘opening hours’, and embracing new technology.
Yes, a highly professional service industry that elevates us beyond the gutter of ‘just selling holidays’, to advising, nurturing, and reassuring. It’s time for us to be seen as the professionals we are and not a dodgy salespeople.
To those in the industry who are not on the front line and are out of touch with the pressures and new realities we face, get a grip, we have moved on. It’s no longer a case of independents vs vertical integration, the independents won – we now need to make sure we win the next battle, the generation who doesn’t know what a travel agency is…(let alone independent!)