In the face of pressure from DIY holiday planners and online travel agents, it would be easy to accept the view that the physical travel agent is fast becoming an obsolete concept.
Digital, as both a research and booking medium, has gained ground and there is no doubt that it is a focus for investment for travel companies such as Thomson, who launched their chat bot virtual assistant last year.
Physical travel stores have declined, but there is no evidence that they will be following HMV and Blockbuster to the high-street graveyard just yet. ABTA research estimates that almost 1 in 5 (19%) people booked a holiday in a physical travel agent in 2016, a figure which grew slightly from 17% in 2015.
The key to survival is technological innovation, making the physical store an experiential and exciting concept that builds brand awareness and provides a place for inspiration, research and booking. Booking a holiday online, especially a complex one, can still be a chore given the multiple sites needed for comparison, the high level of data entry and need for accuracy.
There are key demographic groups that prefer physical channel use: over a third of affluent households and young families. Furthermore, ABTA identified certain holiday types where a travel agent is popular such as new destinations (28% have booked in-store), longer holidays (27%), city breaks (26%), honeymoons (24%) and cruises (23%). Innovation across the globe is focused on these groups.
There are many examples of how travel agents are starting to evolve. Chinese luxury travel and lifestyle brand Zanadu opened a large virtual reality travel concept store in Shanghai in 2016. Thomas Cook UK has also launched 14 Discovery stores which feature free Wi-Fi, iPads and VR headsets to explore hotels and aircraft – a Royal Caribbean cruise ship video led to a 45% increase in sales.
Departure Lounge is an American hybrid travel agency, coffee shop and wine bar that transports customers “to the world’s top destinations via organic coffees, small-batch boutique wines, artisan chocolates and cheeses, desserts and large touchscreens that showcase the best places on earth for a future getaway.” Similarly, German L’Tur has opened a branch in partnership with Starbucks in a high-end mall and Barrhead’s UK holiday experience stores, based in shopping centres, have entertainment for children to appeal to parents.
Using technology to cement a high-street niche should allow innovative travel companies to continue to enjoy success from physical stores, as long as this is part of a seamless omnichannel experience and provides a key point of difference from online-only alternatives.