On decimated UK high streets, travel agents are rising like phoenixes from the flames.
To investigate why these once-forgotten institutes are now booming in popularity, I checked out the brand new Trailfinders shop in Kent, UK.
Once a major retail hub,Tunbridge Wells town centre is now lined with boarded-up shops. Even before the pandemic, big brands were evacuating the mall as shoppers increasingly went online.
So how come a brick-and-mortar travel agent - seemingly antiquated in the age of online booking - is now opening up shop?
I spoke to marketing director Nikki Davies to find out.
Travel agents are seeing record-breaking bookings post-pandemic
Instead of putting on the brakes during the COVID-19 pandemic, Trailfinders hit the gas.
In 2020, new stores opened in Winchester and Solihull, followed by York and Cheltenham in 2021. By September, another will open in Southampton bringing their UK store count to 44.
This gamble seems to have paid off.
“We had a record year in 2019 and we're currently beating that,” says Nikki.
“Basically, it has gone back to a way higher demand than pre-pandemic.”
They are now recruiting 100 new consultants to keep up with demand.
After years of lockdowns and cancelled plans, people are keen to travel again. But complex COVID-19 restrictions, airport chaos caused by staff shortages and strikes, and general uncertainty have knocked consumer confidence.
“We are seeing a lot of people that didn't used to book through tour operators,” Nikki explains.
“They want the security net - they had their fingers burned previously, because a lot of people didn't get refunds during the pandemic…whereas we gave refunds within 24 hours.”
Though travel agents suffered along with the rest of the tourism industry during the pandemic, the chaotic aftermath has worked in their favour.
“I think our reputation has got better because of the pandemic and therefore business is absolutely crazy at the moment - and there's no end in sight,” adds Nikki.
The travel agent boom isn’t unique to Trailfinders
Flight Centre UK also welcomed a huge number of first-time customers following the initial chaos of the pandemic, according to general manager Liz Mathews.
“I think there’s a lot of nervousness and a real appetite to have a person that people can entrust with their all important travel plans,” she says.
Unlike Trailfinders, Flight Centre has dramatically cut its number of stores. Prior to the pandemic, the company had planned to reduce its network by 50 to 60 per cent. However, only 20 per cent of stores have reopened.
Instead, the company is focusing on home workers who can answer calls without being tied to any particular location.
Having a dedicated travel agent on speed dial has proved invaluable for customers booking holidays when the travel industry wasn’t quite ready to bounce back.
Travel agents act as a buffer between consumers and suppliers
As airlines struggle to deal with the sheer volume of questions and complaints following a barrage of strikes and cancellations, travel agents can filter and disseminate information to their clients.
Having a personal consultant backed by existing relationships with airlines and airports is “really showing the value when things go wrong”, says Liz.
“We want to make it easy for customers to just enjoy travel rather than be stressed out about it.”
This is good news for airlines and airports too, as it grants breathing space to their overstretched customer service teams.
“The airlines see even more value in us than they did pre-pandemic because they physically don't have the capacity to deal with the number of customers when there's that level of disruption,” explains Liz.
Do holidaymakers value service over cost in 2022?
Before the pandemic, online travel agencies were the go-to for budget-savvy globetrotters. But, as Liz says, “They struggle to provide that offline support when things get tough.”
Faced with competition from cheap online deals, Flight Centre had already abandoned its price-match policy five years ago. Since then, they have focused on helping customers navigate complex travel itineraries.
“Yes you might pay a little bit more, but the service offering that goes with it is so much better than what you could get booking online,” explains Liz.
So far, this strategy has paid dividends.
As holidaymakers pour their lockdown savings into long-dreamed-of adventures, it seems they’re willing to fork out a little more for peace of mind.
In its 2022 Global Travel Trends Report, Amex found that 86 per cent of participants in Australia, Canada, Mexico, Japan, India, the UK and the US planned to spend more or the same on travel this year compared to a typical year before the pandemic.
And in Flight Centre’s own 2022 Travel Trends report, 54 per cent of Brits said they would choose to book through a travel agent rather than independently.
Nikki also notes that customers are spending more with Trailfinders and taking longer vacations since the pandemic.
What trips are most popular since the pandemic?
When countries began to come off the UK’s red list, Trailfinders saw a surge of last-minute bookings to wherever was open.
“People were just desperate to get away,” says Nikki.
Flight Centre, meanwhile, has seen a boom in bucket-list trips.
“One group that has noticeably sprung back with a passionate vengeance is…the empty nesters [whose] kids have left home,” says Liz.
After working towards retirement and missing out on two years of travel, people in their 60s and 70s are making up for lost time by booking one trip after another, she adds. And travel agents, in particular, lend themselves to complex, big-budget itineraries.
“If you're booking…that trip of a lifetime, you're going to spend more money on a holiday than you've ever spent before,” says Liz. “There is something reassuring…in actually going to sit in front of a person and look them in the eye and talk about this all important trip.”
The ‘VFR’ - visiting friends and relatives - market is also surging.
“People missed out on visiting friends and family for two years - that is such a strong driver,” says Liz.
“And - potentially controversially - parents taking their kids out of school so that they can take advantage of lower season rates,” she adds.
“There’s definitely a trend of parents willing to face the wrath of schools to get the better deal.”
Are high street travel agents here to stay?
Despite the looming cost of living crisis, Brits are still keen to spend on travel. This summer, a survey by travel insurance specialist Just Travel Cover found that booking a foreign holiday was still a priority for 76 per cent of participants - even with rising household bills.
And although, Liz admits, travel agencies may have been viewed as a “bit old-school” in the past, they are well positioned to weather this crisis too.
She believes their strong customer retention rates will continue as holidaymakers build relationships and trust with their consultants, relying on their expertise to navigate ongoing uncertainties.