The high street “does have a future” but it is “going to have to be different”, the boss of Jet2holidays has warned.
Steve Heapy, chief executive of the UK’s second largest Atol holder, predicted that the Covid crisis may enforce changes on the way town centres are used.
And he said companies such as travel agents, through which roughly a quarter of the operator’s holidays are sold, must adapt with the times.
Noting his own nearby town, Leigh, has three independent travel agents. He said: “There’s enough people in that town to go around and keep them all busy. But the question is whether people will travel into a town centre to book a holiday. Is that the sole purpose of the journey? Or do they do that as part of a day out to the town centre?”
He said “the reason for visiting town centres is reducing almost by the month because businesses are closing”. He said the prevalence of fast food outlets, nail bars, vets and charity shops on high streets meant it was less of an occasion to visit the town centre.
“People need a reason to go,” he said. “It used to be the case where you had lots and lots of chains and lots of shops there and you make a day of it. And as the number of retail shops has reduced, so have ancillary shops as well, cafes and restaurants and things.”
He said some high street food businesses had “remodelled their businesses” for takeaways and deliveries during the pandemic. “Even though they can have people back in the shops, they don’t want them,” he said.
“This pandemic could have had long-term effects for the high street.
“What travel agents can’t do is just sit there saying, ‘it’s not fair no one’s coming to the town centre’.”
He called on the government and local authorities to look at business rates, or scrapping parking fees to increase visitors and warned that if town centres but warned that change could involve more buildings changing from commercial to residential use.
“Maybe it’s a bit like in the old days where people live in a town centre,” he said. “You’ve got people in flats, and when you get that there’ll be more bars and restaurants opening – and because there’s more bars and restaurants retail shops might open and it might reinvigorate that way.
“You might not have a 300-metre stretch full of shops, it might be a mixture between residential and commercial. In the lockdown, town centres have now started allowing some cafes to have tables and chairs on the pavement. Why didn’t they do it before? Why does it take a global pandemic for them to do that?”
He said authorities should drop “petty regulations”, and “just open the town centre and make it a better place to go to”.
Jet2holidays recently added an ‘agent finder’ to its website, to show customers where they can book locally, and Heapy said he would consider adding homeworkers after it was put to him that some felt they should be included on their list.
“We’re the only tour operator that’s done this sort of thing,” he said, adding that Jet2holidays has also launched a competition for agents with the best window displays to win a radio campaign paid for by the operator.
He added: “We don’t see the crisis as an opportunity to increase our proportion of direct business. We’ve always said that we believe in travel agents. We believe in working with them. And we don’t have any upper limit on the percentage of business with travel agents, we want to do as much as we can with them. Hopefully, what we’ve done over the last couple of weeks is proof of that.”
Heapy said it “potentially could be the case” that more people holidaymakers book via a travel agent in future. “It goes back to this element of trust,” he said. “People may feel like they’re getting a better experience, so to speak to someone face to face. But what we have to do is really work hard to instil that trust and reassurance into the customer.
“Independent travel agents are particularly good at this in the training they give to their staff. What you don’t want in a travel agency, or indeed any shop, is an order taker, someone that sits there and waits for someone to come to them and says I want a holiday. They should speak to them, ask them where they’re thinking of going, try and build excitement, build anticipation.
“They’ve got to have in-depth product knowledge, they’ve got to be prepared to do some research for the customer and really justify the margins in business. You have to justify your margin. If you don’t, why would people go with you? Independent travel agents are generally very good at this. There’s a lot of value to add, so it could be a very good time to capitalise on this need for the customer to have companies they can trust.”
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