Agents warned over ‘lingering decline’

Agents are too focused on products and destinations and insufficiently concerned with customer needs, says leading market analyst Mintel, and the high street faces a lingering decline if it does not change.

That stark warning dominates the conclusions of Mintel’s latest Travel Agents Leisure Intelligence report – which finds evidence of residual strength among agents, as reported exclusively by Travolution sister publication Travel Weekly.

Mintel’s research suggests UK consumers see personal expertise and knowledge as the “core strengths” of agents. But it also suggests many consumers view online booking as more convenient and better value.

The report concludes: “A reassertion of the value of face time [with customers] is the high street’s best chance of survival.” At the moment, it says: “Agents are more product/destination centric than deeply customer centric.”

Having lost out to the web as the primary source of travel information, agents should respond by offering expertise “not easily available online” and consider an approach akin to counselling – seeking to identify a client’s “emotional needs” and fantasy of a perfect trip, then match these to the most-suitable products.

Mintel points out such an approach requires skilled and committed staff, and notes: “The most successful repeat-business models seem to be agencies that promote a higher proportion of well-travelled graduates and commission-based home workers.”

So the report warns against cutting jobs because of the recession and instead advocates investing to develop staff. “Far-sighted agencies will invest more heavily in the quality of their people,” it says.

Mintel suggests high-street agents will continue to find it tough to compete with online retailers, since: “In terms of perception, the high street is losing.” But it notes: “The online experience can be frustrating, time-consuming and confusing. Agents can exploit this [and] make capital out of the frustrations, inconsistencies and complexity of the online experience. The time-saving advantages of using an agent can be a strong selling point.”

The report suggests consumers are most likely to use an agent when seeking something “a bit different” from the standard holiday – a medium or long-haul trip, complex itinerary or unusual experience.

However, it warns: “There is no dotcom bubble waiting to burst. Whatever the shortcomings of the internet, the convenience of researching and booking travel at home is difficult for the high-street shop to counteract.”

“High-street agents will have a large market of mainstream customers for many years to come, but little room for growth. . . This traditional market has perhaps reached its limits.”

More information:

* Travel Weekly travel agent report
* Travolution: Mintel Reports

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