With increasing numbers of people booking their holidays online, traditional travel agents have been warned to embrace the digital world or risk being left behind.
The annual conference of the Irish Travel Agents Association (ITAA) in Istanbul, Turkey at the weekend, was dominated by the challenge faced by travel agents as consumers bypass them to book their holidays online.
Despite coming with less security and no guarantees of a refund like a bonded travel company, surveys have shown that seven out of 10 people booked their holiday online last year, with over half stating that direct booking online was better value for money.
Speaking at the conference, CEO of the Irish Internet Association Joan Mulvihill told delegates travel agents were already doing what the online sellers taking their business have been doing in recent times.
However, she said that the conversations businesses had with consumers had changed from face to face to online.
“One thing the internet has done very successfully is that it has been an aggregator,” she said.
“Amazon, for example, it aggregates other people’s stuff and sells it directly to you through one big platform. Travel agents were aggregators long before the internet came along because they have aggregated the different aspects of the travel experience, pulled them altogether and sold them to customers. So I think its all to play for and I think travel agents have lots to offer online.
“For example, it is really time-consuming to search and book directly. If I book with a travel agent, it’s much quicker, I’ve got recourse if anything goes wrong, I can ring you wherever I am and you’re covered.
“The important part is that the conversation with consumers is taking place in a different place. It’s taking place online. If you want to take back the conversation with your customers, that is where you have to got to go,” she said
Ms Mulvihill said travel agents could successfully mix the traditional model but incorporate the online more into their business strategies at minimal cost. She stressed the importance and simplicity of YouTube and social media over expensive technology.
CEO of the ITAA, Pat Dawson, said the industry was offering training to members on how to embrace the digital age but said there was still room for the personal touch in the industry.
“ We do extensive training in working online for all our members over the 12 months of the year. What we are finding, however, is that while the internet is a vital tool and one that we use 95% of the time in the industry, the problem is overload.
“People are so confused. They are getting advice from Tripadvisor, they are getting advice from this website and that website and they are left scratching their heads wondering what they should go for. You can read all the books in the world, all the blogs in the world, but the personal touch and service is still key for many people. That’s how we, as an industry, stay alive,” he said.
Mr Dawson said the biggest problem facing travel agents was that customers were coming in asking for advice but then booking online.
“Just like people trying on clothes in a shop and then buying them online. It’s a type of intellectual espionage. They waste travel agents’ time. They get all the information but they are not serious about doing business. We have to pay our staff and overheads and it’s a major drain on what is a massive industry,” he said.
“The whole realm of online selling is challenge that we have to face up to and get up to the mark on. We have to get more professional, we have to move more into the digital world and we will be left behind if we don’t do that.”
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