Bourne Leisure’s decision to stop selling through the trade was met with surprise and dismay by agents. Samantha Mayling asks why suppliers chose to turn their backs on the channel

Comments from agents on social media included “sad”, “gutted”, “a great shame” and “a lost opportunity”.

After February 26, agencies won’t be able to sell Butlin’s, Haven and Warner Leisure Hotels as their parent company Bourne Leisure will focus instead on “investment in other areas of guest sales and communication”.

Agents are no stranger to such rejection, as several trade partners have cut commission or severed ties in recent years. But as distribution strategies evolve, some suppliers return to the trade, while others turn to agents for the first time. Saga followed the latter course in 2015 and within two years was making nearly 10% of its sales through the trade.

Digital price drop

But 2020 was dramatically different, says Martin Alcock, director of The Travel Trade Consultancy.

“The cost of directly acquiring a customer dropped considerably because most leisure businesses slashed marketing spend, leading to a big drop in the price of digital marketing,” he said. “Commission payments to the trade now look comparatively more expensive.”

Alcock said Bourne’s decision might be considered “short-sighted” by some agents, but noted: “Given the existential crisis we are facing, I don’t think it’s possible to be anything other than short-sighted.”

Other industry commentators echoed agents’ surprise, given that trade sales are widely predicted to flourish as consumers are increasingly baffled by complex travel rules.

Kelly Cookes, Advantage Travel Partnership’s leisure director, said a recent survey showed an increase in customers looking to book with agents because of their expertise.

“So this could be short-sighted,” she said. “Agents introduce customers to brands and help maintain loyalty. A strong relationship with agents can help reduce overheads as the need for B2C call centres is less.”

Steve Dunne, founder of marketing agency Digital Drums, said: “It’s crazy. We’ve seen operators coming and going because of distribution costs but I see consumers heading back to agents; they want that personal touch. Lots of people got their fingers burned [going direct]. If I were a rival to Bourne, I’d make a big song and dance about trade sales.”

Trade advocates

One domestic specialist that recently embraced the trade is Great Little Breaks. It launched trade sales in January 2020 to fill a gap left by Super Break – and now half its sales come via agents.

Chris Cundall, its director of trade relations, said: “Businesses do swing – sometimes they are happy with the trade, then it’s seen as an expensive route to market. It can depend on who is at the helm.” He added: “We have one agent with 65,000 Facebook followers. If they share an offer, they get 20 bookings in a day.”

Another UK specialist, JG Travel Group, reported an “immediate spike” in trade sales for its Just Go! Holidays and National Holidays brands after November’s lockdown eased.

New chief executive Andy Freeth said he is committed to the channel: “Agents will play a very important role in rebuilding consumer confidence. Many have very personal relationships with customers.”

John McEwan, a director of several travel companies and former UK boss of Thomas Cook, said: “I suspect Bourne Leisure had a small percentage of sales through the trade – it’s a wide portfolio with well-known brands, so there’s a high chance customers will book direct. People are looking critically at costs, but if you have agents as an extension to your sales arm, it can be cost-effective. They will regret that decision.”

He noted P&O Cruises’ recent decision to increase commission, and Virgin Voyages’ wooing of the trade despite sister brand Virgin Holidays going direct in 2015.

Gemma Antrobus, owner of Haslemere Travel and chair of Aito Specialist Agents, said: “Cruise lines dropped commission then brought it up again as they see the route to market as less costly, and straightforward.”

‘Agents never forget’

She recalled a backlash towards Virgin Voyages when it launched to the trade. “We never forget,” she said. “An agent is for life – not just for Christmas…or Covid. If you’re an operator and not selling through agents, you’re crackers.

“With ‘influencers’ you get Instagram likes; when an agent sells your product, that’s money in the bank. We’re on the high street, someone you can physically see – most tour operators don’t have that.”

She said niche operators favoured trade channels because agents can take care of customers’ varied worries.

Neil Sealy, head of trade sales at Exsus Travels, said direct channels may suit Bourne because its brands are well known, whereas 50% of Exsus’s 2019 revenue came from trade sales. Referring to 2020, he added: “About 80% of our enquiries and bookings came from agents over the past six months – and we only pay commission if we sell a holiday.

“Agents are wary of supporting brands who flirt with them, then pull away, then come back again.”

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