Travel restrictions may be inevitable, but the demise of travel agents is not, marketing chief Rory Sutherland tells Ian Taylor.

Over-tourism will make restrictions on popular sites inevitable, says Rory Sutherland, one of the most senior figures in UK marketing, who will address the opening-day of UK travel association Abta’s Travel Convention in Seville in October.

Yet Sutherland, vice-chairman of advertising agency Ogilvy, sees a positive future for agents, dismissing forecasts of their demise as “exaggerated”.

He warns: “We’re going to have restrictions on tourism. There is no other solution. ’The jet set’ was 200,000 people in the 1950s. It’s going to be two billion.

“Tourism taxes may be necessary to prevent overcrowding. We may have to tinker with differential pricing for tourists.” He points out: “Italians don’t pay €5 for a coffee in Rome – there is a price for locals.”

Part of the problem, Sutherland argues, is that “travel is driven by signalling. There is an element of people going to show off.”

He says: “I asked a group of 200 millennials, ‘Who has been to Machu Picchu?’ Twenty hands went up. ‘Who has been to Lincoln Cathedral?’ Six hands. Lincoln Cathedral is not less interesting, but if you’re in South America, the sunk cost means you go to Machu Picchu.

“It’s almost mandatory now for students to spend three months travelling around Asia or Latin America, and they always try to do too much. They might be better travelling around Europe.”

Sutherland is equally sharp-tongued towards the travel industry, suggesting: “Price has become the only salient thing” and the sector’s “yield management could be cleverer – it’s very dumb”.

He argues: “Don’t always advertise on price. If someone is looking for four tickets, why not offer four for the price of three? A business traveller will pay the full price. Don’t discount to people prepared to pay the full price but to those more price sensitive.”

Sutherland warns against a wholesale shift to personalised pricing, suggesting: “It brings the possibility of a complete breakdown in trust if you quote higher prices [to some people]. I’m in favour of price discrimination but not to the extent that it makes people feel cheated. Some travel sites show more expensive [options] if you search on a Mac.”

At the same time, Sutherland stresses the continuing value of intermediaries. He says: “There is a narrative in business and government that the use of technology only brings gains. But a lot of predictions about where the market will go are exaggerated. The prophets of the digital generation tend to be in the top 10% of the population for wealth and can afford to make a mistake. Most people will continue to use intermediaries.”

He insists: “Travel agents, estate agents, wedding planners play an important role in the purchase of infrequently bought things.

“For example, a wedding planner arranging flowers for a wedding will go to a florist, who may be much more terrified of upsetting them than upsetting an individual bride or groom. The florist depends on the planner for future business.”

Sutherland will speak on the opening morning of the Travel Convention on ‘Who Can We Trust?’, in line with the Convention theme of ‘Truth, Trust and the Future of Experts’.

The Travel Convention 2018
Oct 8-10, Barceló Convention Centre, Seville
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