The world’s travel agents are combining new technologies and personalised service to compete in an ultra-competitive marketplace, according to Jayson Westbury, chairman of the World Travel Agents Associations Alliance (WTAAA).
Speaking to Travel Daily this week, Westbury said that many countries, such as Australia, are seeing a “resurgence” of bricks and mortar travel agencies, and that travel shops remain a fundamental part of life in many countries. But they are maintaining this relevance by expanding into an “omni-channel” environmental – harnessing new technology while retaining their local, personal service.
“Traditional agencies have maintained considerable market share, which does vary market by market. There is still an obvious presence of travel agencies in [some Asian countries], such as Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore. Even in India we’re still seeing a lot of retail shop-front,” Westbury said. “Agencies… have found ways to become even more relevant to clients and partly this is via the omni-channel [environment] that many agencies now apply.”
Omni-channel agencies “connect with the customer the way the customer wants”, according to Westbury, whether it be face-to-face or online. And he believes this new operating environment is now achievable for most travel agencies, due to technological advances made by GDS companies.
“Travel agents today have the ability to become omni-channel relatively easily with the intense investments made by the GDS to support travel agents,” Westbury told Travel Daily. “[Agents] want to have booking apps in the hands of customers and multiple ways of connecting with existing clients and potentially new customers. It is an ever-evolving space and critically important to the future success of travel agencies across the globe.”
And with travel agencies often running of on “very tight margins… often with no budget allocation for IT”, they are increasingly relying on the GDS for their development. And GDS companies, according to Westbury, are doing a “superb job” in helping agencies develop.
The rise of OTAs has clearly had a major impact on bricks and mortar travel agencies over the last decade, but Westbury believes that it is still “difficult to see OTAs taking over large-scale transactions”.
“OTAs are getting better at developing complicated itineraries,” he conceded, but for “trips of a lifetime” and other high-value transactions, travellers are likely to continue to seek personal service and expert advice.
“The internet has commoditised travel, and this is why human agencies are doing so well – they’re adding value and making [the booking process] personal again. Customers develop a rapport with agents; they listen to their advice. They could maybe get the same advice through reading pages of TripAdvisor reviews, but they trust the travel agent,” he said.
And this trend of personalisation is also leading to “deeper specialisation”, according to Westbury, such as agents focusing on small group tours, luxury travel, adventure travel, and specific regions of the world.
“It’s all about carving a niche in a noisy space,” Westbury said.
As for the future, Westbury doesn’t foresee any “global domination of travel distribution”. But there could be a trend towards the convergence of online and retail travel agencies, as the omni-channel booking environment continues to develop.
“We’ve seen Amazon launching their own book shops; will we ever see Expedia launching a travel store? Companies want the customer to be brand-loyal, however they book, and stores are all about making noise around the brand.
“It’s an ever evolving space and critically important to the future success of travel agencies across the globe,” Westbury concluded.