Searching online for anything, including travel, is a horrendous experience, and one which Advantage agents should exploit, according to the consortium’s new non-executive chairman Steven Esom.

Addressing delegates at the consortium’s annual conference in Dubai, Esom said: “Do a Google search and there’s so much stuff that comes back. Consumers need someone to cut through it all. If you believe we’re in a knowledge economy where expertise is key, then you need that face-to-face.”

He said agents were also in the “sweet-spot” to capitalise on the fact that no-one wants a holiday off the shelf anymore.

“My kids know exactly where they want to go. They want experiences rather than holidays. The days of just buying something off the shelf are long gone.

“Everybody wants different durations, departures, activities, and that’s where our members should come into their own. They should be capturing these 20 to 30 year olds who are much more independent, are much better travelled and understand airports.

“I think our members’ stores have to be different. The idea of going into an agency with desks now seems strange. Our members need to offer a much more consultative selling approach and this is one of the things that Julia [Lo Bue-Said, Advantage managing director] has been looking at: how agencies might look in three to five years time.”

Esom, who was formerly boss of Waitrose and held senior roles at Marks & Spencer and Sainsbury’s, stressed that he didn’t think money was the answer and that the transformation was much more to do with service.

He added: “I’m a great fan of the high street as long as it keeps reinventing itself. Waitrose had a loyal customer base but most were over 65; their families had left home and they were spending less and less on goods. We had to rework our brand and our offering because if we’d just carried on the same way, Waitrose would have gone.

“We looked at who should be our potential customers and we built up our business one customer at a time, making sure each one was a ‘boomerang customer’ who would come back. It was tough, but it was do-able.”

Esom made it clear he never resorted to price to build a new, younger customer base.

“Waitrose was never the cheapest, but over the years it has outstripped the growth of other premium food retailers and the difference was service.”

He added that Advantage had an even greater potential to succeed, but said travel was a much more complex product than groceries and a much more important purchase to get right.

“I am amazed at the regulation you have to deal with and the number of systems you have to use to make a booking,” he said.

“The ability to sit with someone who has expert knowledge to ensure that customer gets exactly the right holiday is something that is not sold enough in terms of consumer priorities. Advantage has a key role to play in raising that consultative expertise of our members higher in the minds of consumers.”