The power of digital can’t fill the shoes of face-to-face interaction, says If Only general manager Gordon McCreadie

As the UK emerges from lockdown, it’s still far from plain sailing for travel. With conflicting information around quarantine and air corridors, and the intermittent introduction of local lockdowns, it’s hardly surprising consumers remain nervous.

Satisfying the needs of agents and their customers has to be our priority, and while predicting future trends and buying behaviour is more difficult at the moment, it’s not impossible. In order to survive in this ever-changing marketplace, operators need to find new ways to be reactive.

If Only decided to run a short survey among our travel agent partners to ensure we’re concentrating our resources in a way that meets their requirements. As a purely B2B operator, our agents’ opinions are what counts, so it’s essential their voices are heard. This research was invaluable, highlighting key challenges and concerns in the UK market, while providing intriguing food for thought on new priorities of agents and their customers.

The question of general confidence towards travel is something of a hot potato. I’ve read endless opinions on the matter and it appears to differ depending on destination, departure date and current restrictions. Having said that, our survey was clear: it’s all about 2021 trips. While there is still some interest around late escapes this autumn and winter, a whopping 85% of agents said the majority of enquiries featured departures for next spring and summer.

Destination choice

A lot of agents reported greater consumer support for Europe than long-haul at present, but this was before the UK government reintroduced quarantine for Spanish travel. With the prospect of similar restrictions for other European destinations, is this going to push people to venture farther afield? Very possibly, particularly as our survey found the prospect of quarantine was the number‑one booking deterrent.

As for destinations, the Caribbean, Mexico and Indian Ocean were named as the most-popular choices by more than 60% of agents. This didn’t surprise me as the availability of luxurious properties and private villas will make social distancing easier.

And then there is the in-resort experience. Without doubt, people are more particular about the accommodation they’re looking for in light of Covid-19. Hygiene and reputation have never been so important, with more than 50% of agents citing well-known hotel chains as their most-popular property type and 35% observing a switch towards villas. All-inclusive remains the board basis of choice, with customers keen to stay in-resort where they can trust safety and hygiene measures.

Family matters

Consumers are conducting their own risk analysis too. According to agents, almost 70% of enquiries at present are for couples and just 27% for families. This suggests parents are nervous about taking children abroad, particularly with new rules and regulations around face masks and social distancing. It’s our role as the operator to feed this back to airlines and hoteliers so we can work together to bring back confidence and provide great-value offers to inspire families to book.

Understanding what consumers want is one thing, but as a B2B operator it’s all about enabling agents to meet these needs, whether that’s offering the right marketing material, altering booking terms to make life easier or our field sales team offering support from a safe social distance.

Social media offers are in demand like never before – we’re experiencing a Facebook frenzy at the moment – as agents look for alternative ways to connect with customers.

However, the power of digital can’t fill the shoes of face-to-face interaction. While Covid-19 has kept the industry’s wonderful field sales teams away from their agents, absence has made the heart grow fonder. Despite challenges around physical store visits and busy schedules, it’s apparent the support and advice of a regional BDM is still essential for operators to remain agent-focused – many high street brands are welcoming the possibility of pre-arranged visits in the coming months. One thing’s for sure – the If Only team will see you soon.