The rate of closures of high street travel agencies slowed dramatically last year despite pressures on retailers and multiple high-profile closures of brand-name stores.
Debenhams announced the closure of 22 department stores last week, although none hosting Virgin Holidays outlets, in the latest in a series of company voluntary administrations (CVAs) by high street names.
Yet the Local Data Company (LDC), in a report due out today, found just 87 agencies closed last year, in contrast to 2017 when 670 shut and travel agents were in the top-three fastest-declining sectors. The figures take no account of agencies opening.
Thomas Cook has closed 200 shops in the past two years and announced plans in March to close another 21. However, Travel Weekly has reported a spate of agency openings, with Hays Travel last month opening its sixth branch this year, in Beverley, Yorkshire.
Hays Travel managing director John Hays said embracing technology was key to the future of travel retail. “I’ve tried to inculcate in staff that the web is their friend,” he said, adding that an average of nine enquiries a day per shop came via the 182-shop agency chain’s online branch locator tool.
“Of people who book in store, more than half have researched their holiday digitally in advance.”
Barrhead Travel, which opened three of its 37 stores in the past year, also said its website was a “key driver” of footfall. President Jacqueline Dobson said: “The travel industry is very much alive on the high street, but it’s about more than just selling products – it’s about creating experiences for customers when they are in store.”
Kuoni, which opened its 19th concession in February, at John Lewis in Manchester’s Trafford Centre, acknowledged that “nearly everyone planning a Kuoni holiday starts online” but that “the numbers booking purely online are small”.
According to the LDC, the vacancy rate on UK high streets rose by 0.3 percentage points year on year to 11.5% in 2018. Shopping centre vacancies hit 13.5%, while vacancies at retail parks rose by 2.3 points to 7.1%.
The average vacancy rate across retail rose by 0.3 points to 11.5% but remained down on 2013, when it hit 12.5%. All four retail classifications (service, convenience, leisure and comparison goods) declined but service sector retail, which includes travel agencies, suffered less than other sectors.
An LDC spokeswoman hailed “a resurgence” among travel agencies amid increasing online competition and uncertainty around Brexit, and noted a trend for concessions within larger retailers.
Indie retailers fare better than multiples
Independent shops fared better than multiples across all UK retail sectors last year.
The LDC report shows indie closures fell from 1,483 in 2017 to 1,013 in 2018. By contrast, closures of multiples’ shops (chains with five-plus stores) rose to 6,537 from 4,010 in 2017.
Overall, the LDC recorded a loss of 7,550 retail units in 2018, or 1.2% of the total, although there were only 61 more retail closures in total than in 2017. However, there were considerably fewer openings.
The number of retail units redeveloped for another use “jumped” by 32% to 3,577.
Head of retail and strategic partnerships Lucy Stainton said: “Beneath some stark numbers, we see a multitude of emerging trends that hint at a bright, diverse future for our high streets – shown particularly by two years of strong growth in service-led categories.”