By Alistair Rowlands, group general manager for travel services of Midcounties Co-operative
Well, as January ends and the snow melts, we can look back on an interesting ‘peaks’, particularly in the high street.
Against all the odds – a triple-dip recession, further public sector cuts and fewer reasons to visit the high street – we have seen some growth. The snow has dampened our excitement, but we can be pleased with the market so far.
All this suggests that hard-up customers will give up many things but not their main holiday. Yes, they want to control spend and continue to move to all-inclusive options, but they are still spending, and we will be there to help, support and advise them.
There has been much speculation that high street travel agents have struggled to compete and lost market share to online retailers and operators, fuelled further by the seemingly constant bad news for the high street in general.
There has also been a number of parallels made in the press between failed retailers such as Jessops and Blockbuster and travel agents, that the market has moved on and those products are better served online, or the markets have disappeared altogether.
The reality is that like any market, selling travel in the high street does need to adapt, have more associated services added and, eventually, move to charging service fees.
Specialism and quality relationships will remain the key, and the reason why independent agents will remain relevant.
I have visited many of our branches in January and was humbled to see great relationships with our customers, good banter and often great ‘theatre’.
Customers should enjoy the experience, have a cup of coffee and leave feeling that they have been served well, even if they may have paid a bit more than they would for booking online.
Service will always be key and we are ahead as an industry. Others are catching up, though, and we need to be aware of great service becoming a norm.
I had to call BT last week to report a home broadband fault. I was amazed when the adviser in the Indian call centre started talking about the previous weekend’s football while resetting my router – brilliant!
We should look forward to a good year, with some pent-up demand because of the weather. Hopefully the euro and dollar rates will remain strong too.
But don’t get me wrong, even with a buoyant market, the recent failures of strong miniples show how hard it is to make money as an agent.
Costs should be under constant review, as should leases and suppliers.
Overall, it is the level of discount that needs to be controlled – chasing volume at any cost is a dangerous strategy.
Choosing partners who support agents is key: operators and suppliers who appreciate and need the support, not those who don’t deserve it.
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