Retail travel agents must have the confidence to make short-term bookings now restrictions are starting to ease, according to some suppliers.
Speakers on a Travel Weekly webcast said that some agents had been cautious about making bookings for imminent departures, having had to deal with uncertainty and government reversals over the course of the pandemic.
But they said that lack of confidence and not being fully accessible for clients was now one of the main barriers to capitalising on restrictions easing and customer confidence rising.
Jet2holidays head of trade Alan Cross said: “I do think that one of the biggest obstacles (to growth) is – and I hate to say it – (some) travel agents, because we see it in the mix of business for summer 21 and winter 21/22.”
He added: “They were very slow at having the confidence to book their customers, because they are seeing it, in many instances, as hassle.”
Cross said agents must get out of this mindset and capitalise on the latest relaxation to international travel restrictions before it’s too late.
“They have to get this out of their mind, because customer confidence is better now than it’s ever been during the pandemic. And they have to demonstrate that they know everything that’s happening out there and that they can get a customer through that,” he said.
“Rather than it being difficult – make it easy for them…not only by going through any requirements or hoops that governments want them to go through, but also by being accessible.”
Cross said homeworkers had come into their own during the pandemic, while retail agents had struggled.
“We’ve seen homeworkers have benefited hugely because it’s business as normal. Many (retail) travel agents in the first year of the pandemic were saying to customers ‘here’s my mobile number, here’s my Facebook, here’s my email address – contact me anytime of the day or night’,” he said.
“Now what they are saying is ‘I’m open between 10 and four, I close on a Wednesday; I close on a Sunday; I close early on a Saturday’.
“We’ve got to make sure that we get the pent-up demand that’s out there through the travel agents. The customers want to book through them, but they’ve got to be accessible.”
Cross warned agents need to step up now to ensure they make it through the winter.
“It’s about survival. If they don’t get cash flow through the businesses now, it doesn’t matter how many bookings they’ve got for summer 22 or 23, they need business now,” he argued.
“The business is out there and they have got to take the opportunity to actually get it. For homeworkers, it’s business as usual. We get 20% of our Jet2holidays business after five or six o’clock at night. And it’s homeworkers that are doing that business.”
He said about half the agents that Jet2holidays works with still needed to accelerate their response to the growing demand.
“A good 50% of the agents we work with [need to do more],” he said. “The owners have realised and in the past three, four weeks, we’ve seen a bigger mix for summer 2021 of trade, but the trade business on the late booking market really did drop quite significantly for a few months.
“The demand was there, we’ve seen it – but you’ve got to accommodate when the customers want to book, not them having to work around your opening times.”
Cross added: “For example, on Friday night last week, between six o’clock and midnight, over 2,500 bookings came in after the close of business. There were a number of those through homeworkers but a lot of the retail agents missed that.
“In fact, there were 85 bookings that came in between midnight and one o’clock in the morning. So again, you’ve got to accommodate and give the customer the ability to book whenever.”
Some agents hesitant
Nick Hughes, sales director at Gold Medal, agreed that some agents had been reticent to sell.
“There has been that hesitancy, due to everything that’s been in place and the lack of confidence from not just customers, but even from us – the so-called professionals that work in the industry,” he said.
“With the ever-changing information that we’ve been given, and with different operators, different airlines and different destinations, all having a number of different rules and regulations, there definitely have been some agents that I know that have said they weren’t going to take bookings for 2021; only from 2022 onwards, because they felt that was a safer way to move forward.”
Hughes added: “Our business with our homeworking agents has been fairly consistent and the highest-performing throughout the whole pandemic. But it is slightly different for the retail guys, because they’re still making use of furlough in some cases.
“There’s an element where some would have potentially had five or six people working in an agency, that now might have only one or two. So because of the different business model, it makes them make a slightly different decision in their respective businesses.”
Hughes said: “The news of last week has to be really positive and that should help high street retail agents get back on the road to where they need to go. There have been some absolute winners over the last 18 months. I have spoken to different agents who have been operating either from home or from an online perspective, who have absolutely picked up some ex-retail customers because they just haven’t been open.
“So it’s about how do you give customers that confidence to actually come back into that shop or give that shop a call, to guarantee that businesses for the short term, not just for next year or even 2023, because they need the cash now.”
‘Get out of hibernation’
Amanda Matthews, owner and managing director of Designer Travel, said: “If they haven’t already done it, which they should have already done maybe four or five weeks ago, agents literally need to get out of hibernation now.
“Do the research, accept that it’s going to take an extra 15 minutes – even an hour more – for every booking before it goes, to do all your tests and checks, etc. But absolutely, if agents aren’t going to come out [fighting] now, if they leave it any longer, it will be too late.”