7 years ago

How travel agents can help themselves AND TripAdvisor

NB: This is a guest post for by Matt Lovering, a director at Maddox Consulting.

This is a tough time for travel agents on Main Street and the High Street. The merger of Thomas Cook and the Co-operative’s travel business in the UK, for example, is just the latest sign of an industry struggling to adapt to a radically-changed world.

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However, while mergers can bring greater market share and valuable efficiencies, such deals are typically defensive.

High Street agents must take the initiative on other fronts, particularly online, if they are to secure their futures.

Travel agencies have suffered a hard recession, with bookings severely affected by weak consumer confidence.

According to the Office of National Statistics, the number of Britons taking holidays abroad fell by 8% in the year to the end of August.

Throw in the ash cloud episode, the weakness of sterling and concerns about public spending cuts, and the past two years have taken their toll.

Furthermore, a recent survey by insolvency specialists Begbies Traynor found more than 6,500 UK firms in the leisure and travel industry facing significant or critical financial problems.

However, a weak economy is just one factor undermining agencies’ financial health. The unstoppable rise of the web has also fundamentally altered consumer behaviour.

Even when economic growth resumes, this change will continue eroding the foundations of the High Street business model.

This is hardly news, of course, and yet it is striking how few traditional agencies are properly embracing the internet and turning it to their advantage.

The web has spawned three principal threats to the offline agent.

  • Most obviously, online travel agencies and aggregators have become hugely popular, as have ancillary holiday services offered online by airlines.
  • Such providers have contributed to a second major challenge for established agents, namely the growing readiness of holidaymakers to book travel without expert help, coupled with the decline of the package holiday.
  • Lastly, user-generated content, and particularly TripAdvisor, has increased travellers’ self-reliance and displaced agents as sources of travel advice.

Yet, despite these clear challenges, few agents have so far tackled the web in a coherent manner.

For example, many agent websites merely serve as online brochures, offering little ecommerce capability and merely directing visitors to a branch or call centre. As a result, the market share ceded to new rivals may be difficult to reclaim.

Nevertheless, with the right business strategy, high street agents have a chance to regain the initiative by exploiting their unique strengths.

To compete effectively, such businesses must have sales, marketing and distribution strategies that properly integrate the online and offline worlds.

Websites are excellent for simple trips and transactions, so agents should ensure they offer this capability. However, for more complex itineraries, the human agent remains invaluable, making a branch presence a competitive advantage.

Therefore, the challenge and opportunity is to create integrated 21st century travel agencies that offer twin on- and offline paths to a booking, deliver a consistent customer experience and enable customers to transfer easily between these paths as their needs dictate.

At the same time, the crisis currently afflicting TripAdvisor has created an opportunity for agents to reclaim their authority and relevance in the social media age.

TripAdvisor is in the firing line for supposedly lacking a rigorous process to establish whether posted reviews are genuine.

Reports, which do appear to be gaining some momentum, suggest people have been abusing the system by posting negative, baseless reviews about competitors, or anonymously heaping excessive praise on their own establishments.

As a business dependent on the mutual trust of its community, TripAdvisor faces a fundamental threat from these disclosures.

So, the opportunity for agents is not to build a TripAdvisor rival – trying to cultivate your own online community is an excellent way to waste money.

Instead, travel agents should leverage TripAdvisor’s popularity by supplying the credible content the website so badly needs.

Having arranged customers’ accommodation, travel agents could gather and supply verified traveller reviews to TripAdvisor and similar sites, applying the agent’s own logo to each posting as a kitemark of authenticity.

The online visibility so gained would promote travel agents to a highly targeted audience, demonstrate agents’ enduring value and could help drive prequalified traffic to agents’ own websites.

NB: This is a guest post for by Matt Lovering, a director at Maddox Consulting.

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  3. Murray Harrold

    There is an implicit assumption, when discussing agents and more specifically independent agents and the web, that agents wish to continue and compete simply as an updated version of what went before. This is not the case. Some time ago, it was realised that to compete as a simple booking agency, was not going to work. Indeed, this happened, perhaps, long before the internet took a hold – we were dealing with the Lunn Poly’s of this world who were able (and still are in their new guise) to sell the “two weeks in Benidorn” package much more efficiently than any independent.

    It is also a tad discourteous to suggest agents (again, independent certainly and also mulitples who are worth their salt) need TripAdvisor. Many are well acquainted with many resorts and equipped with first hand knowledge which could be imparted by mouth and so, without the fear of Messrs Sue, Grabbit and Run taking any undue interest. Tripadvisor needs agents more then agents need Tripadvisor. We may use it to read up on places, but if Tripadvisor wants agent input…Tripadvisor can pay for it.

    Many independents have suddenly found out that they have had to revert to being, well, travel agents and are proving quite good at it. They are there to advise, to suggest… to do their job… and frankly, they have been able to do that very well, long before any techy type said: “If we link these two PC’s together, do you think they will talk to each other?”


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