Saying that the internet has taken over our lives is most definitely an understatement.
Not simply because we are currently scrolling through Instagram while also doing some online shopping as we write this.
The disruption of online is being felt by many, in fact, most industries.
But how is it reshaping travel?
Well, last week Travel Weekly reported that too much choice online is making consumers yearn for human-to-human conversation, and nowhere is this more clear than in travel.
Agents are without a doubt becoming more and more popular with travellers and some are pinning this down to the ‘clutter’ of online.
One person, in particular, is industry legend and founder of Spencer Travel Group, Penny Spencer.
We sat down with Spencer to discuss the rise of online and the resurgence of agents’ popularity.
Travel Weekly: So Penny, is online clutter really leading to an increase in agent sales?
Penny Spencer: What we see, really, is people coming back.
It’s evident that, for many, the novelty of doing-it-yourself has worn off.
Not just because it’s becoming increasingly difficult to wade through the clutter (I mean, these days, where do you start? An OTA? An aggregator? Supplier websites directly? ‘Deal’ websites? TripAdvisor?) and the seems-to-good-to-be-true pricing, but because it only takes one flight misconnection, one visa stuff-up, one scam or one hotel reservation gone awry (and no-one to call to sort it out for you) for it not to be fun anymore.
If you’ve got all the time in the world to assess every online option (and are a whiz at spreadsheets), or you know what you’re after (a short-haul flight to your favourite resort, for example), then I get it.
But there’s a reason that travel agents have been a ‘thing’ since, well forever, really: Travel is a tricky business.
There’s a Vietnam travellers Facebook advice group I dip into occasionally to see how the DIY traveller crowd-sources information these days.
The tangles that these people get into every day over visas (consulate, e-visa or visa-on-arrival-with-introduction-letter), flights, layovers, transfers and exchange rates (‘Am I being ripped off?’), hotels and – a regular favourite of mine – ‘What does “twin beds” mean?’, is astonishing.
It all seems like stuff that a single visit to an agent would resolve.
And are we seeing an increase in agent sales?
You don’t have to do much more than take a look at the record results coming from Flight Centre and Helloworld to answer that one.
TW: How important is the brick and mortar agent in the online era?
PS: Clients still like to sit in front of their Consultant and talk travel whether it be a bricks and mortar or Home-based.
The key is the human contact, the relationships.
Not just between client and agent, but between agents and their suppliers.
As people return to agents, they’re appreciating the VIP touches and perks that an agent can source, the wrinkles they can iron out, the queues they can jump.
Not long ago, we secured an incredible room for a client in Cannes in the middle of the film festival when every website was showing no inventory.
A quick call to the manager of one of our favourite hotels and – voila! We have dozens of examples like this.
TW: Will there always be a need for human to human communication?
PC: Travel, to me, seems to be an industry built on relationships and human connections.
Bots and AI are becoming eerily human in some respects.
But can that replace real human-to-human contact? I don’t think so.
TW: What trends have you noticed in consumer behaviour recently?
PC: Certainly, clients know more about where they’re going, prices, flight times, minimum connections, frequent flyer programs, seats on aircraft and all kinds of ‘hacks’ than ever before.
They come to us brimming with the information they’ve sourced online, and we love it.
It makes for brilliant client-consultant interactions.
TW: Any differences in booking patterns by agents because of online?
PC: I think it’s fair to say that, with the exception of cruising perhaps, people are booking much closer to departure than ever before.
They have so much info at their fingertips that last-minute is the new black.
TW: Any predictions?
PC: More people doing a bit of both: Booking some bits of a trip online, and other parts with an agent.
And more people realising that ‘internet’ doesn’t always mean ‘cheaper.