Can ABTA bring travel agents’ image up to date?

Nowadays armchair travellers really can organise holidays from the comfort of their living-rooms, and the rise of the internet and direct selling is having far-reaching consequences for traditional travel organisations, not least industry body the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA).

As more people choose to book holidays directly, rather than through a travel agent, ABTA is contemplating an ad campaign (MW last week) to highlight the advantages its members offer compared to their rivals.

Airlines now sell flights direct on their websites, channeling users through to hotels, car-hire companies and travel insurance providers, cutting out the need for a travel agent and promoting a do-it-yourself ethic among consumers.

However, the practice is not without risks: this week, Essex-based Cruise Control – which sold holidays direct and on the Web – collapsed. Fortunately for customers, it was ABTA-bonded.

ABTA’s research shows that 19 per cent of people booked their most recent holiday online, and anecdotal industry figures suggest that direct sales have doubled in five years, to make up 20 per cent of bookings.

Meanwhile, ABTA membership has fallen. The organisation had 1,877 travel agent members in January 2000, but membership had shrunk to 1,478 by January 2005 – although the body says this is because of consolidation, pointing out that members’ average turnover is now more than &£9m.

ABTA says the biggest problem with booking direct and through unlicensed websites is that customers are left without a safety-net if something should go wrong. This issue formed the focus of its last campaign in 2002.

In order to counter online operators and direct sales, most ABTA agents now have a Web presence and are offering a more tailored service. A spokesman for ABTA points out that travel agents are paid to prepare itineraries and track down deals, and can often source cheaper fares than people simply surfing the internet. He says that DIY holidays are often a perceived, rather than a real, benefit.

Brent Hoberman, one of the founders of Lastminute.com, says that the company acts as a “cyber intermediary”, and that although Lastminute.com itself is not ABTA-bonded, its suppliers are registered with the association, as well as government licensing authority ATOL.

Hoberman says: “From a marketing point of view, doing it on the internet is more ‘modern’. If you’re not doing it that way, then you are a bit dated.”

However, traditional agent First Choice says it is not too concerned about the changes in the way people book holidays. It has bucked the trend towards online booking: a decade ago, the company had no retail presence, but now it has more than 300 high-street shops.

Director of marketing services Steve Baily says people tend to book short breaks direct and online, but still go to travel agents for their summer holidays. “People used to get lots of brochures, but now they look at the internet,” he says. “There are more channels of distribution, but a large part of our target market still wants to come in and look an agent in the eye. We deliver a package; people who only want a flight are not really our target market.”

But Ryanair, which sells 98 per cent of its seats online and the rest through its call centre, claims it offers customers more choice than its rivals. The site offers links to hotels, car-hire companies and insurance providers. Sales and marketing manager Sinead Finn says that consumers who book on their own can make sure they are buying exactly what they want, instead of relying on a travel agent’s recommendations. She adds that they are strongly encouraged to take out insurance.

As people make more journeys, and demand better prices and wider options, traditional travel agents will have to broaden their horizons if they are to retain their reputation as the most trusted advisers.

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