Planning your next holiday? How traditional travel agents can help

In the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Brussels, thousands of flights were cancelled or redirected to other airports. For weeks, travellers remained uncertain of their plans, with many trips called off at the last minute.

In retrospect, Konstantina Karadimitropoulu is glad she opted to use a travel agency to plan her honeymoon. In early March, she and her husband visited Service Voyage Schuman and decided to head for Mauritius in the Indian Ocean by the end of the month.

“When the attacks happened, we didn’t know if we were going to be able to fly,” the Greek expat says. “But the agent quickly found us a different flight and we were able to leave on the same day. We didn’t have to do a thing. I have a colleague who had organised a trip on her own and travelled a few weeks after me, and it took her forever to rearrange her itinerary. She still needs to get her money back.”

Describing herself as a do-it-yourself kind of person, Karadimitropoulu says she had never gone to a travel agency before. “Planning our wedding was an exhausting experience, so we decided to leave our honeymoon to a third party,” she says. “I didn’t know if I would like it, but it proved to be a fantastic experience. The agent was so helpful and enthusiastic, and we got a lot of special deals for newlyweds.”

For all her positive experience, however, Karadimitropoulu’s decision to buy a trip through an agent’s office is part of a disappearing trend. Travel agencies, once essential for booking holidays, have seen their share of the market diminish in recent years, as more and more people book trips independently online.

Internet sales now account for almost 40% of all trips and Belgians are three times more likely to compare offers online than in the past. As more travellers look to book their trips on the internet, many brick-and-mortar shops will be forced out of business in the coming years.

Facing internet competition

Realising that the vast majority of their customer base are already shopping online, many intermediaries in Belgium are opting for a hybrid model, combining online sales with a network of travel agents. One of the first, Connections, launched its online platform in 2000 but continues to operate 31 travel shops across the country.

“On the internet, the only criterion is price,” says spokesperson Frank Bosteels. “There are a lot of things that don’t necessarily appear, like cheaper connections or special hotel deals. The internet is doing a great job, but it won’t tell you everything. A qualified agent has access to hundreds of thousands of hotels and knows the ins and outs of the business, so the chances are they can get you a much better deal.”

To get away from the tense situation in Belgium this spring, UK expat Mark Cunningham was planning to take his family somewhere warm for a week-long holiday in April. The family set their sights on the Canary Islands, a popular destination for Belgians, but when Cunningham visited the local office of travel agency Neckermann, the agent advised him to go to Cyprus instead.

“Because of its proximity to Syria, many Belgians are avoiding Cyprus, even though it’s perfectly safe. The agent said we would get a much better deal going there,” he says. “We were able to save quite a bit of money and stay in one of the best hotels on the island.”

At Neckermann, Cunningham opted for a luxury service known as Pegase, which comes with such perks as a private car to the airport, faster lanes through check-in and security, and access to a business lounge at Zaventem airport.

“We have three small kids, so it means we’re not waiting around for a very long time,” he says. “And when our outbound flight was transferred to Liège, Neckermann still arranged a taxi for us at no extra charge, even though it’s about an hour away. We also got a voucher to use against our next trip because we didn’t go through the lounges in Zaventem. I didn’t ask for it, they just sent it to us.”

When deciding on package holidays, Cunningham always goes through travel agencies because of the perks and the information he wouldn’t think of on his own, like the deals in Cyprus. But if he’s going somewhere close and familiar, like France, he books on his own. This is increasingly true for most travellers. Bosteels, like many in the industry, admits that travel agencies are no longer the first choice when it comes to booking trips to neighbouring countries.

“We’re becoming less relevant for trips within Europe, because they are just so convenient,” he says. “People are familiar with their destinations and they feel they don’t need expert advice. And in some ways, they are right.”

Getting closer to travellers

Innovation is key to the survival of travel agencies. According to industry experts, in addition to creating new and more exotic destinations, intermediaries are focusing on getting closer to travellers, by not only enabling them to book their trips through apps or online but also informing them of itinerary changes and keeping in touch throughout the trip.

For weekend excursions to France, Italy and the UK, Natalie Arsenow arranges everything online. But three years ago, the German expat who lives in Brussels booked a 10-month trip around the world with STA Travel that took her to 15 countries in Asia and North America.

“When I realised how complicated it would be, I decided not to do it all on my own,” she says. “If anything went wrong, I thought, I would at least have a point of contact, someone to turn to.”

As an art teacher on a limited budget, she spent hours on the internet fishing for the best deal, before settling on STA Travel, because the trip would have cost her more if she’d broken it up into segments and booked on her own.

“Out of the dozen or so flights, only one would have been cheaper. The agent found tickets that included two, three, or even four cities,” she says. “I did a trip from Thailand, through Malaysia, down to Singapore, which cost just a little bit more than a direct flight from Bangkok to Singapore. I wouldn’t have thought of that, simply because it wasn’t on my radar.”

Because of the convenience and the fact she was able to save money, Arsenow says that if she ever embarked on a similar trip, she wouldn’t hesitate to book with the agency again. But the biggest selling point, she adds, was the care and advice offered by the agency, which provided her with detailed information on vaccinations, currency, weather and even the political situation in each country, but also kept checking up on her throughout the trip.

“Whenever I sent them an email, the agents responded within two hours. I knew that if anything were to go wrong, they would tell me what to do, where to go and who to call. It’s almost like having a personal assistant that helps you get everything right. You’re certain that you won’t miss anything.”

‘The traditional agency is dead’

STA Travel operates a global website that generates most of its sales, but Arsenow booked with an agent in her native Germany. To attract potential travellers and respond to the online challenge, many agencies are reimagining the look of their high street shops.

“The traditional agency with posters of exotic places and all sorts of brochures is dead,” says Bosteels. “It used to be relevant when people had to go there to obtain information, but now everything is at their fingertips. The shopping, the inspiration – it’s all on the screen.”

Some travel agencies run cafes; others, like Connections, have done away with traditional desks and computers and sit the agent and the customer together for a casual conversation in what looks like a diner straight from New York or a campsite in the savannah. “It’s all about making that personal connection. There’s no computer separating the travel agent from you, so you’re sitting together, discussing the project,” says Bosteels, comparing it to visiting a museum.

“You can go to a museum and say you’ve been there. Or you can explore the same museum with a skilled guide who will show you around and explain what you’re seeing, build a narrative and give you a totally different experience. It’s the same with creating the perfect trip.”

But he admits that he doesn’t know what the future holds for his industry. “It’s something we ask ourselves every day. We’re anticipating, trying out new things, because if we don’t innovate, we won’t be here five years from now. People will travel more and more, but the way we provide our service will be nothing like what we do today.”

This article first appeared in ING Expat Time

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