Sink or swim: how internet overload saved travel agents
Holidaymakers are returning to the high street to book their great getaways
We live in a digital world where a simple tap on the iPad or a bit of jiggery-pokery on the smartphone can have us booked on the next flight to Ibiza and sipping cocktails by the beach before our battery's even died on the mobile.
And yet, it would appear that an increasing number of customers are opting to plump for a more traditional route when it comes to arranging our sun getaways. The travel agent is making a comeback, in fact, rumours of its demise may have been greatly exaggerated.
Club Travel, the country's biggest travel agent announced this week that it has experienced a 40pc increase in sales in the past five years. It's increased its employee numbers from 130 in 2014 to 160 in 2015 and its turnover will increase from €86m to €120m this year.
"There's been an upturn in the economy and an increase in spend by our corporate customers," explains Colman Burke, director of Club Travel Ltd (clubtravel.ie). "Trends are returning to where they were before the crash, people are taking more than one holiday a year and looking at destinations further afield."
The company has launched a new long-haul and honeymoon website (escape2.ie) and increased its online presence with its BudgetAir.ie website. "The internet is as much an opportunity as a threat," says Colman. "You have to embrace it."
"There's a saying 'only the good survive' and this is nowhere more true than with travel agents," agrees John Spollen, marketing director and co-owner of Cassidy Travel (cassidytravel.ie) who celebrated 30 years in business this year. "Our business has gone up continuously and so have our staff numbers. We even opened more travel shops during the recession!"
Just a few years such enthusiasm would have seemed unthinkable. Headlines proclaimed the 'end of the travel agent' and 'holiday booking services to become extinct'. Between 2008 and 2010 the Commission for Aviation Regulation had to pay out almost €10m to Irish consumers over the collapse of travel agents. In 2010 the number of travel agents fell by 22 to 246 compared to a Celtic Tiger peak of 349.
Today figures from the CAR show the numbers of agents licenced to trade in Ireland only declined by one between 2013 and 2014. Data submitted by those seeking licence renewals report an average increase of 5pc in turnover.
"The novelty factor of being able to book a break online has worn off for a lot of people," explains Pat Dawson, CEO at the Irish Travel Agents Association. "I was at a travel conference recently and a main thing coming out of that was that people are overloaded by the amount of information online. They put 'holiday' or 'flight' into a search engine and get 3,000 answers. A lot of them are saying 'to hell with that, I can't be bothered'."
Last year a survey found that people booking a holiday costing around €270 would spend some three-and-a-half hours trawling through research online, but only save about €40 compared to if they'd just gone with an expert. Those booking a pricier getaway tended to save more, in the region of €300, but only having spent some 10 hours staring at a screen. And if you need to cancel, refunds are more likely with an agent. Do-it-yourself booking sites are simple enough when booking a mini-break in London, but the online experience can become a more stressful affair when trying to plan multiple flights. One mis-tap of the mouse and family members could find themselves not only sitting apart, but potentially on different flights. You're also less likely to get a refund if you need to cancel, or help if things go wrong.
"When the ash cloud happened, a lot of people realised the benefits of booking with a bonded travel agent," says John. "Group holidays, leaving cert holidays, honeymoons - it's often easier to organise these types of 'big' trips with a travel agent because it removes a lot of the risk."
However, booking with a travel agent can mean you have to pay service fees. "On average these are about €20 per person per product," explains Coleman. "You may avoid some of this if you book online but there can be lots of hidden costs, especially if you need to change or cancel. That €20 gets you great advice, a variety of payment options and plans and most importantly, peace of mind."
Travel agents aren't the only ones experiencing a renaissance as customers plump for a more traditional way of doing things. Just recently we've seen Waterstones make the decision to ditch ereaders from its shelves and return to print books instead. Interestingly one of the biggest demographics leading this charge back to the old way of doing things is the 'online generation' of Millennials.
This age group is twice as likely to read a print book as an ereader. They're also increasingly likely to use a travel agent. According to MMGY Global's recently released 2014 Portrait of the American Traveller, 28pc of Millennials have used a travel agent in the past 12 months, 30pc of them intend to in the future - and they are the cohort most likely to travel more and spend more when they're away.
Perhaps because they're so internet savvy, 18 to 34-year-olds are also aware of the limitations of the internet, the false reviews, and the small print you might not notice. They'll do their research online, but they want an expert when it comes to booking. They want to know about far flung destinations you don't read about on the internet.
"Families and older travellers also like the safety net of booking with an expert," says John. "The cruise market is growing in Ireland and booking a cruise needs specialist knowledge."
To meet the changing nature of demand, the industry has to adapt. "Things will never return to where they were," says Colman. "We have maybe 200 retail travel agent shops now versus 500 about 10 years ago. Those who survive will be by and large those who specialise, as online agents will dominate the sales of simple travel transactions."
But Pat believes there will always be a place in the market for travel agents. "Provided they do three things," he says. "One, be smart with technology. Two, Give a better service than people get on the internet and three, knowledge of product is vital. You can read whatever you like on TripAdvisor but its not the same as someone who has been there telling you face to face about a restaurant 100 yards from the square. There's a higher level of trust there, not least because the travel agent that's telling you about that restaurant knows you're going to come back and take the head off them if they're not right."