Now, in the face of a new breed of independent traveller who books direct and researches on the internet, they are battling to survive. Or are they? And what can travel agents offer us now?
There was conflicting news this week. Thomas Cook announced plans to “consolidate its retail network” by closing another 39 UK high street stores. This will reduce the number to 719. In 2013, it had 874. It’s not all bad news – the company is slowly expanding the number of larger, hi-tech “Discovery” stores in major shopping centres. Overall, though, the trend on the high street is clearly down.
Except, that is, for Kuoni, which is growing, adding another seven to the 59 stores it already operates.
So why is Kuoni thriving? First, much of its business is in the lucrative honeymoon sector. Many outlets, including five of those to be opened in 2017, are in John Lewis stores, perfectly placed so that young engaged couples, when they have finished poring over their wedding list, can move seamlessly over to discuss their honeymoon.
I visited the branch in John Lewis in Oxford Street, London, recently and it was immediately apparent why Kuoni is doing so well. Couples are desperate to get things right. Quality is more important than raw cost. They are travelling to places they’ve never been, and for a special occasion. They need advice about destinations, climate, hotels, beaches, upgrades and so on. They want things to be perfect. And Kuoni can deliver. It is a long-haul expert, with well-trained staff who know the destinations and understand what their customers want.
Honeymoons aren’t the only sector in which Kuoni specialises. Long haul and winter sun are other areas in which customers are more likely to need advice.
Other agents operating in the long-haul market, such as Trailfinders and Dialaflight, are also thriving. Again, staff expertise is the key to their success. I hesitate to quote marketing spiel, but I think Kuoni’s own summary is broadly right : “Research shows that customers are not walking into travel shops to touch screens. They are coming in… to speak to someone who can give them insight and guide them to the right holiday.”
Of course, it is still possible to get bad advice, even from specialists. So go in with your eyes open, and remember two key rules: first, be sceptical of any agent who doesn’t ask plenty of questions – it’s the only way they can learn enough to help properly. (And be wary if they seem to be trying to sell you something.) Second, speak to more than one company. You are spending a lot of money; it’s worth the extra trouble.