A little knowledge goes a long way
IT is only three weeks since Minister Tom Parlon TD launched a €1m training programme for members of the Irish Travel Agents’ Association. The two-year ‘Target’ programme, which will be rolled out in the autumn aims to address the changing business and operating environment facing the Irish travel trade. Over 3,000 training days will be delivered to 500 agency staff in 100 of the country’s premier travel agencies. Two questions nudge to the forefront. Is it too late? What’s the point?
These days the word ‘beleaguered’ comes hand-in-hand with most references to the travel agent industry, as the onset of online booking continues to impact on the old-fashioned High Street travel agent who used to hand out the glossy brochure and book the package holiday in return for a booking commission. Today, more than 80 percent of airline tickets are sold online and the commission paid by airlines to travel agents has ducked from nine percent to zero.
Tour operators, who began offering online discounts for family holidays two years ago, have also cut their commission rates. Budget Travel, which is responsible for 30 percent of package holidays in Ireland, no longer sells holidays through travel agents. Other operators have halved the heretofore standard ten percent commission to travel agents.
“I take umbrage with having to stock a load of brochures with 1850 and Freephone numbers all over them, or big web addresses, so that my customers can just pick them up and walk out and go on-line,” responds Evelyn Byrne, manager of Castle Travel in Castlebar.
For Ms Byrne it is not a case of sour grapes. It’s business. And after 18 years in the business, she now finds herself required to reinvent Castle Travel, to reassess its raison d’etre and its modus operandi.
“We have been shocked into being more customer driven,” she admits, but already she feels the company is reaping the benefits. For her, the future is bright, but for tens of traditional travel agencies around the country it is a very different story. It is estimated that up to 40 agencies failed to renew their licences last May, while three of Ireland’s most highly-respected agencies have gone to the wall in the past 12 months.
“It’s no longer about buying sweets off a shelf,” surmises Evelyn Byrne. “We have had a wake-up call definitely. But it doesn’t have to be an either-or situation.”
The changing face of the tourist market has triggered alterations which are anything but cosmetic. The reinvention of the travel agent begins with the demise of the word ‘agent’ and its replacement with terms like ‘advisor’ or ‘consultant’. The environment is changed utterly, and with that comes a revision of its vocabulary and language. The internet has not only brought online booking into people’s home, but it has also brought the world inside those four walls. A vast sea change has taken place in attitudes towards the world we live in. No longer are long-haul destinations viewed as inaccessible, exotic destinations and the preserve of the rich and famous. Today the world is a smaller place. The psychological boundaries which have proscribed us from considering China or Vietnam as places to see have been eroded.
So too the financial obstacles. Once upon a time, not so long ago, it was one holiday a year, and this limitation meant a place in the sun irrespective. The visit of the Celtic Tiger to our shores, and the expected impact of SSIA maturity, means that three holidays a year is now the norm. The Irish public is much more discerning about the breaks it desires, and lifestyle holidays have emerged as a key element. Re-enter the travel agent.
“When people come into the travel agency they don’t know how to ask for what they really want. They think they know what they want until we start telling them about the choices that are out there,” explains Evelyn Byrne. “We’re actually very valuable to the public. We’ve been giving out free knowledge, information, experience, expertise for whatever number of years and we’ve put no value on this. You go to your doctor, your solicitor, your accountant and just for talking to them you pay money to them. That is the way, I believe, that the travel agent will stay in business into the future.”
The re-design means that the public can now make appointments for private, 45-minute consultations, which are provided for a nominal fee. This fee is deducted from the overall cost of the holiday should the client book with the travel agent. The customer also has the option of taking this information home and surfing from site to site for three to four hours at a sitting.
The expertise of the travel advisor is now paramount. It’s not about the best deal, it’s about personal experience. Members of Ms Byrne’s staff have this year attended training courses in Canada, South Africa and the Caribbean. One member of staff offers her knowledge of living in Fiji, Tonga, New Zealand and Australia - the backpacker’s dream consultant.
“We allowed the public for 20 or 30 years to come in and ask us all these questions and to go out with the knowledge free of charge. Now we have realised how valuable we are, we need the public to respect the fact that we need to charge and that they will get something in return.”