Comment: Dear Richard Branson and co, maybe agents are the route to recovery?

Miles Morgan Travel chairman Miles Morgan calls on suppliers to back the third-party sales channel

This period has certainly been the toughest in my 30-plus years in travel. To make it tougher, we are a long way from the end of this Covid-driven recession. Many will see it through and flourish and many will not make the other side. Very sad times indeed.

Through the 16-plus weeks, many things have changed and will change even more. Some suppliers have stepped up brilliantly, others have disappointed. Things will never be quite the same after this. Every business will change in greater or lesser degrees and this does present an opportunity to look at things differently and start afresh. The bold will reinvent themselves and move on to greater success in the future, but we all need to take a good long hard look at everything we do.

Virgin Holidays decided agents were not part of its plans a good few years ago. The service offered by agents was seemingly not good enough for Virgin to see its customers’ end-to-end experience to the level it required. Well, through a lack of funding, the service offered by Virgin to its clients has been awful. Many will never, I’m sure, use them again. Virgin will need to build bridges and restore faith in their brand.

Well Richard [Branson], you asked us to sell your cruises, so maybe one of your routes to recovery could be working through agents again. It could get you the extra distribution and client access you need to relaunch in a new world.

Aiding recovery

P&O Cruises felt bypassing agents to refund directly was a good route for the line to take during this pandemic. It certainly got it closer to agents’ clients and got P&O working with them directly.
The refund delays and the impossibility of contacting P&O by phone has not made this work, in the eyes of our clients. It was an odd move and one not taken by any other supplier. With cruise confidence at a lower ebb, this is the time P&O needs trade support more than ever, not only to retain those disenfranchised existing clients but to attract the new-to-cruise market, which could be harder after Covid. A commission structure that properly rewards agents would help.

Tui has had a tough time. Its shops are not yet open. I was at Tui, then called Thomson, in the early 2000s when a more direct approach was taken and commission was dropped. It was a different world back then. Demand was strong, the retail estate was powerful and the web channel was growing like never before, the time was right. Fast forward and all is very different: the shop estate is shrinking at a fast pace and the online growth is slowing and becoming more expensive. A relook at the third-party sales channel is surely due to fill the void left by Tui’s own shops, at least. Maybe, just maybe, closer price parity will help not hinder your success.

High street v OTAs

It certainly appears that taking bookings online is the easy bit. Having the capacity to administer them in challenging times is another thing. We’ve seen a whole list of suppliers fail on this, through not only a lack of money to refund, but importantly the ability to keep in touch with clients to retain their quality brand position. Travel agents do this for free for suppliers, even in these tough times and speaking to ours, I know they appreciate it.

This pandemic has shaken our industry to the core and it is still going. It is a huge generalisation but high street agents and homeworkers have scored more points than online retailers during this period. The agents who survive will, in my opinion, flourish and grow even stronger over the next few years as nervous customers look for faces, not faceless organisations, to inspire and give them confidence.

It is worth reminding suppliers that agents are paid only when sales are made, unlike every other channel, where costs are rising and results uncertain. Savvy suppliers will realise this and will already be putting plans in place to ensure they get their share from agents when we come out of this crisis.


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