Travel Agents: Why we will always need special agents
Since the summer, travel companies have faced a near perfect storm of negative news. Key destinations have been rocked by civil strife; Bangkok has been submerged by flood water, and tourists have been kidnapped from the idyllic beaches of Kenya.
Plus, record oil prices have pushed up costs, while austerity has left all of us more worried about keeping our jobs than booking this summer's holiday.
Shortly before Christmas, Thomas Cook, which invented the package holiday, posted pre-tax losses of €474m and announced the closure of 200 shops in Britain.
The world's oldest tour operator is seeking up to 23 redundancies from its Irish workforce. In Ireland, it operates under several brands, including Panorama and Sunworld, and sells directly from its Irish website.
The news sent shudders of anxiety through the travel industry. Yet some companies seem to be riding the storm reasonably well. Cook's great rival TUI, which operates Falcon Holidays and Thomson Holidays in Ireland, saw a rise in profits last year, but admits that times are extremely challenging.
So are we looking at a passing spasm in the fortunes of the travel industry, or a more deep-rooted, structural shift in the way that we book, research, and even think about our holidays?
Twenty years ago, the average desk clerk in a travel agent would know significantly more than their customers about the destinations they were thinking of booking, and they had information and resources the customer didn't. They could give them meaningful advice and justify their commissions.
Now, many of those customers are likely to be far more experienced travellers than the clerks.
When people are planning a holiday to a mainstream destination, they may be going back for the second or third time. They will have a clearer idea about where exactly they want to stay and know that for a list of recommended hotels, you don't have to ask a travel agent.
While tour operators struggle to sell package holidays, companies that serve the independent traveller seem to be thriving. The most effective exploiters of the internet age have been airlines, especially the no-frills carriers.
Ryanair announced bumper profits recently, while Aer Lingus saw a 7pc rise in passengers numbers in November, compared with the corresponding month in 2010.
Though they now risk alienating travellers with myriad extra charges, they have still made booking easy and, crucially, slashed the cost of flying to the point where operators and travel agents simply can't compete.
There are some honourable exceptions. Agents with specialist knowledge, such as Trailfinders, still thrive and offer excellent value.
But there are good reasons why tour operators should remain optimistic. They offer a measure of security -- financial protection, and a duty of care when an ash cloud strikes, a terrorist threat emerges or a destination descends into civil war.
Maybe in all of us there is a tension between the traveller and the holidaymaker. We love travel because it is exciting and unpredictable. But we want our holidays to be hassle-free, relaxing and safe.
Because of this, there will always be a place for companies that can adapt quickly, and offer a more secure form of holiday.
The trouble is that, at the moment, not many of us can afford to book with them -- as Thomas Cook is discovering to its cost.