Sm@rt Agent winner December 2006 – Travelcare

Travelcare’s efforts to transfer its renowned in-store service on to the web have landed the retail chain our Sm@rt Agent award. Paul Nelson reports

Online travel agencies are continually criticised for failing to match the service of the high street. So when established high-street chain Travelcare embarked on an 18-month overhaul of its website the main objective was to replicate its in-store experience.

Running a successful 320-shop network, which has 1.3 million customers a year generating a turnover of around £430 million, gave it a distinct advantage over the purely online agencies, Expedia and Ebookers.

Indeed, what better way is there to match its high street offering than to ask its in-house experts – the travel agents?

Bosses quizzed frontline agents with the aim of improving the booking process while giving online customers the same level of flexibility and advice they would receive in a shop. The new-look site – – relaunched in September with the introduction of complete online booking, in a process reduced by two steps down to five.

An ‘inspirational’ tool, late deals and a dynamic packaging section were also launched alongside an area where the customer who knows the holiday they want can enter the brochure code or hotel name.

Head of sales and marketing, Paul Kendrick, believes customers’ mindsets are no different whether they go into a shop or search on the web, despite the widely held view that online consumers are fixated on price.

“The online customer journey is no different to that of a shop customer,” he says. “Agents told us some customers know exactly the holiday they want while others don’t have a clue.”

All of the tools have been added to the homepage, ensuring an obvious link to the company’s bricks and mortar background.

Head of e-commerce Bob Taylor compares the site’s homepage to an agency’s window display. “The web is just a virtual branch,” he says, arguing that tf the homepage doesn’t display all the site has to offer then “it’s no different to the doors of an agency being jammed”.

Travelcare agents – like many others on the high street – have holiday searching systems that return results both from operators and its own dynamically packaged product. This facility has been adopted online, with Travelcare claiming it is the first consumer-facing website to offer this.

What a website can’t offer, but the high street can, is conversation and interaction between the customer and the agent.

However, Travelcare attempted to replace this online with holiday and destination-related facts that appear between the different stages of the booking process.

The ‘Did You Know’ statements – which include the length of the Great Wall of China (1,400 miles) – also help to cover up the time it takes to get the information from the legacy booking systems – just as the agent conversation would do in a shop.

“Holidays lend themselves to be booked on the web but searching old booking systems can take up to a minute,” Kendrick says. “We wanted to include something relevant and engaging to fill the time.” 

Meanwhile, a ‘Quick Search’ box has been placed on all pages throughout the booking process – allowing the customer to simultaneously search for another holiday.

Taylor believes this replicates the way a conversation with an agent can change the holiday choice. “We looked at how high-street customers engage with consultants,” Taylor says. “In an agency a customer can change their mind about a holiday – for whatever reason, be it availability or price. “However, on the web customers traditionally have to abandon the original search and go back to the home page and start again.”

Taylor claims this facility has led to consumers staying on the site longer.

Involving the agents in the design of the site has seen Travelcare reach its conversion rate target of one in 100 and Kendrick believes this level puts it on a par with the leading online travel agencies.

Travelcare has merged its years of high street experience with standard web skills such as search engine optimisation, pay-per-click marketing and new Web 2.0 techniques.  However, the site was specifically designed to reduce its reliance on expensive pay-per-click advertising by being better optimised and achieving higher organic search engine listings

Traffic is up 40% while its pay-per-click advertising strategy has been overhauled. Travelcare has reduced its number of search terms with it now operating “thousands” – this compares to rival chain Thomson, which has aggressively grown its web business based on more than one million search terms.

The improved SEO means Travelcare no longer advertises on its brand name and has stopped paying high figures for popular generic terms in favour of a long tail strategy based on specialist areas such as cruise.

Social networking is also critical to the site’s success with both agents and customers encouraged to blog about their holiday experiences. The aim is to create an in-depth database of reviews to help consumers make their holiday choices. Agents are also being encouraged to use the blog to help them clinch sales. Blogs can be vital to increasing online bookings. Recent research from Forrester revealed 29% of online leisure travellers who have researched a holiday have used blogs and user reviews.

An affiliate marketing scheme is also set to be launched this month.

High street agents could fear significant investment in its employer’s web presence could ultimately have an impact on jobs.

However, Travelcare appears to have allayed such concerns by involving its agents in the design of the site while also developing a number of tools to help them increase their business. For example, the administrative burden has been taken off high-street stores with customers able to pay off their holiday balances online.

Kendrick believes it should free up agents to sell more holidays and, ultimately, earn more commission. “The last thing an agent wants is to spend a busy Saturday dealing with customers paying off their holidays when there are people waiting to book,” he says.

However, Kendrick admits: “It’s a constant battle for agents not to have the fear factor about the number of customers they are losing to the web. We are trying to show them the web can also drive their business and not just steal it.”

The site’s 5% discount, meanwhile,is simply a deal “commonplace” on the high street in January. 

To further cement agent support and demonstrate the web is just one stand of a three distribution platform strategy, Travelcare has plans for agents to receive commission on web bookings they have generated.  Currently, online customers are able to save holiday searches through the use of reference numbers.

Using this system, Travelcare plans to pay its agents commission on bookings that started in a shop or call centre and end up being completed on the website. Agents will give customers a reference numbers for itineraries they put together, with this number enabling access online to complete the booking.

“It’s not fair for agents to do all the work but get no reward,” Kendrick says.

From the Sm@rt Agent sponsor:

Travelcare has long maintained its independent and ethical policy on travel advice to the consumer and has established a position that is well respected by the operators and principals the company works with.

It is no surprise that the work done on its new system has benefited from in depth, in-house analysis, bringing the retailer’s high street face-to-face customer experience to its new technology.

To retain customers, and more importantly, to attract new ones, the in-store experience needs to be seamlessly integrated into the online search and indeed become a “virtual branch”.

One of the biggest challenges faced by traditional high-street retailers is attracting new customers in today’s switched-on world.

As each month goes by, more and more first time travellers access the Internet for their travel advice and to book – and feel comfortable going down that route.

It has long concerned me that high street retailers are not being sufficiently active in attracting new and first-time travellers through their doors.

This can only be addressed by creating Internet-based access and Travelcare has gone a long way to encourage new customers with the “virtual branch” offering the best of both worlds.

Bob Taylor’s comment that “sites have to be intuitive about how people search” is key to this development as other search engines/strategies are on a process of continuous development to ease the process and appeal to a wider market.

Once again, the use of blogs and user reviews is highlighted – and the past three winners of the Travolution Sm@rt Agent award have all embraced this in their innovative approach to market development.

I am delighted that Travelcare is continuing to lead the market in online development and look forward to seeing how its sales benefit.

John Harding is sales and marketing director at

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