Innovation in travel technology, and the proliferation of websites and apps, has given power to the consumer, and led to a decline in the number of high street travel agents, with only 20% of consumers now using them to book overseas trips. However, we believe the traditional travel agent can still have an important role in helping consumers decide upon their travel plans – but they need to rethink the way they engage with consumers if they are to survive in the long term.

Most consumers now go online to research and book trips abroad, and travellers are increasingly influencing each other’s purchasing decision through sharing their experiences. This is particularly challenging for travel agents, whose specialist advice is not always well adapted to technology.

The impact of the internet on the travel industry has been profound, due to the high price point and complex nature of products, and the importance that people attach to their holidays. A consumer’s research and booking can now take place across multiple websites, apps and devices. If travel agents are to avoid becoming just another sales channel where they compete on price alone, they must move from a transactional model that focuses on product to one that focuses on consumer experience, and become trusted advisors.

Agents can benefit from digital technology and customers’ willingness to share information, to continually learn about their customers’ travel habits. This will help them to create bespoke itineraries, and provide products and advice consumers could not find themselves. There is also potential for agents to use technology to interact with customers throughout their travels, for example checking in with them while they are away or sending them local recommendations via social media. The founders of Kayak recently launched travel start-up Lola, which focuses on a customer’s end to end travel experience, using up to date technology to connect travel agents with their clients. It is building a ‘behind-the-scenes’ software system that travel agents can use to find options and make bookings, paired with a consumer smartphone app that agents can use to keep in touch with their clients, so that plans can be easily changed and ideas shared as they are travelling.

The advantage that travel agents must capitalise on if they are to stay relevant to consumers is the specialist knowledge that can only be easily shared through conversation, but they must use technology to enable this interaction. In this way they can help people find the local, authentic travel experiences they are looking for, in a way that can’t be replicated online.

Frances Perrin