Virtual reality will let customers experience their planned holiday destination in the high street travel agent’s shop
CREDIT: ROBERTO MOIOLA
When anyone with a search engine and an internet connection can pull together a foreign holiday, the need for a travel agent, one might think, is surely in deep and desperate decline.
Travel agent’s shops are no longer as ubiquitous on the British high street as they once were, something starkly reflected by the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA) in its 2016 Holiday Habits report, which showed that three out of four holiday bookings were made online.
Despite this, and perhaps because of this, there is a growing trend among travel companies and tour operators to revitalise their retail portfolio, emphasising the idea of booking a holiday as “an experience”, and working to marry up the online and in-store world for customers.
Barrhead Travel has fitted parts of some of its shops out in a cruise ship format
Bill Munro, chairman of the Scottish-based business Barrhead Travel, boldly claims that he kicked off the modernisation trend back in 2003 by making relatively simple changes such as having separate desks for the company’s agents, as “you don’t want to be shoulder to shoulder with someone else when you’re about to spend a couple of thousands pounds of your hard-earned money”.
But the whole industry has been ramping up the changes recently, embracing digital technology, making travel agents’ shops more interactive and even trialling virtual reality goggles to give holidaymakers a chance to experience where they are planning to go on holidaying.
We hope within 12 to 18 months to have robots interacting with our customers as they walk past our stores in shopping centres. - Bill Munro, chairman of Barrhead Travel
Barrhead’s “holiday experience stores” are located in high-footfall areas, including shopping centres, and boast desks which look like cruise ships where customers can see on-screen images of the cabin they will be staying in or videos of the hotel they are contemplating booking.
Other innovations include entertainment for children, with screens on which they can watch Disney cartoons while their parents (the young ones will be hoping) book a trip to one of Disney’s resorts.
Disney stands at Barrhead Travel are an addition aimed at making stores more attractive
More futuristic developments are also being mulled. “We hope within 12 to 18 months to have robots interacting with our customers as they walk past our stores in shopping centres,” Mr Munro said. “Customers will be able to ask them basic questions.”
The use of technology is also being embraced by some of Barrhead’s larger competitors, such as Thomas Cook, led by Peter Fankhauser and Tui. Thomas Cook’s Stratford Westfield opening in October last year was the 14th of what it calls its “Discovery” stores. A further 15 are planned, including a refit of its Kingston upon Thames store and a site within Glasgow’s Silverburn shopping centre.
TUI uses “digital posters” of different destinations
Kathryn Darbandi, director of retail and consumer at Thomas Cook, says additions to the Discovery format stores include virtual reality headsets which enable customers to take a VR walk around some of the company’s hotels and aircraft.
Other changes to try to make stores more enticing for customers include “digital posters” of different destinations. In-store appointments can now be booked online, to better match customers with an agent who has the right experience to discuss the holiday being sought. “If people don’t have better knowledge or better than a customer can research themselves, that’s not good enough,” Ms Darbandi says.
People still want the expertise of a travel agent can deliver in a store. - Erik Friemuth, group chief marketing officer at Tui,
Seven out of 10 Thomas Cook customers start their holiday search online but a “very large number of customers value face-to-face service”, she says. “Some people are time-poor and want to have the pressure taken off them, others just want to speak to someone who can recommend something to them or tell them they are making the right decision.”
Inside Thomas Cook's Stratford Westfield Discovery store
Erik Friemuth, group chief marketing officer at Tui, says physical stores remained important for the UK market, given roughly half of the company’s sales are made at a travel agent site. The company’s annual market research showed online had “reached its limit in terms of interest,” but there was a renewed potential for retail to attract customers. “People still want the expertise of a travel agent can deliver in a store.”
Mr Friemuth says the company is focusing on having fewer locations but giving customers a “deeper experience”, particularly in its “Holiday Design Stores”, including elaborating on the research customers may have already done online. If customers have registered an account on the Tui website, they can put potential holidays on a shortlist, which helps agents build on what the customer has already found.
The company is also trialling virtual reality headsets, alongside the video screens and interactive touch screens the refreshed stores already boast.
Tui can also now contact, in real time, its staff in the destination a customer is considering booking to help answer any questions the client might have. “That allows us to provide information to the customer which goes far beyond a catalogue or brochure,” Mr Friemuth says.
Almost half of holidaymakers book an overseas holiday via a travel company or agent, against just under a quarter who used them for domestic breaks in 2016, according to ABTA. But good levels of service could see customers book more than just their main holiday via a travel agent. Derek Jones, managing director of Kuoni, says the growth in his business was “more about bringing new products to our stores, rather than launching more locations”. He says: “It was not our intention to sell anything other than long-haul, but once customers get a high level of service they want to come back, and we have seen demand for other holiday types as a result.”
Demand for European holidays has quadrupled, Mr Jones says, and Greece and the Caribbean are “selling as much as each other right now”. This was predominantly down to the service provided, he says, and his company only invests in consumer-facing technology when it thinks it will add to the service.
Travel analyst Nadine Fisher, from the market research specialist IBIS World, says the “personalised experience” will be vital if the high street travel agent is to survive. “Consumers can now do much of the research required to make travel choices independently from the services of travel agencies. However, this may be time-consuming,” she says. “In order to gain traction from consumers, travel agents at new discovery stores must provide more in-depth information about a greater range of destinations. They must ensure that provision of their services is less time-consuming than independent online research, while supplying high-quality information.”
Online booking is still expected to overtake in-store sales. - Nadine Fisher, IBIS World
Technology-driven stores are opening at a slower rate than traditional high street travel agencies are closing, Ms Fisher says: “Online booking is still expected to overtake in-store sales.”
Victoria Bacon, ABTA’s director of brand and business development, is more optimistic, however. “We have seen some exciting innovations in the industry in the past couple of years, with a number of travel businesses investing in expanded and improved in-store experiences, recognising it is a popular way for people to book,” she says. “With younger people the most likely to book in-store, the future for travel experts on the high street looks bright.”