Travel Agent NewsOften it's at travel agencies where true retailing happens, but travel retail's full potential has not been maximised.

Technology doesn’t sell travel; people do

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Travel agencies are not catching up with changing consumer purchasing trends, according to speakers at a recent Travelport webinar.
Travel agencies are not catching up with changing consumer purchasing trends, according to speakers at a recent Travelport webinar. Photo Credit: Adobe/Prostock-studio

New industry consumer research suggests that travel retailing is lagging behind other industries amid changing customer needs and expectations, much of it driven by online purchasing culture.

Speaking during Travelport's recent ‘The Modern Retailing Era’ webinar, chief marketing officer Jen Catto said: “As counter-intuitive as this may be, retailing is not about selling your products, not in travel, not in any business. Retailing is about understanding what your customers need or want, and providing them with the products that make their lives better."

She argued: "Where change is needed is where the most consumers interact with all the travel possibilities at the agencies. Agencies are the only places true retail can happen.

Where change is needed is where the most consumers interact with all the travel possibilities at the agencies. Agencies are the only places true retail can happen.– Jen Catto, chief marketing officer, Travelport

"Carriers might think that they are retailers and they are, in a limited way reselling their own products, but it's at the agencies, where there's the opportunity for the full breadth of content choice and end-to-end customer service, that true retailing occurs."

Catto contrasted the low level of travel agency name recognition with the most successful global brands in other sectors, such as Apple or Nike. Travelport's research showed that almost half of leisure travellers who had booked online could not recall the name of the OTA used. In corporate travel, 99% of business travellers did not know which travel management company they had booked through. 

Agencies have become overly focused on technology rather than the customer. Travel agents needed to position themselves "as a service and not merely as a platform" and "instead of reducing price, agencies need to add value. And how you add value is by being different from the competition," she said.

Responding to Travelport's findings, Bryan Koh, divisional vice president e-commerce & distribution at Singapore Airlines agreed: "Travel is inherently very complex because we are trying to put many pieces together to complete a traveller's journey. The complexity is the confusion we cause our customers because we all try to be different. But yet we cannot bring that differentiation across in a clear and transparent manner. I think a lot more can be done to increase transparency for our customers who are shopping for travel."

Travel is inherently very complex because we are trying to put many pieces together to complete a traveller's journey.... we all try to be different, but yet we cannot bring that differentiation across in a clear and transparent manner.– Bryan Koh, divisional vice president e-commerce & distribution, Singapore Airlines

In Koh's view, one solution is already making an impact. "We are investing in New Distribution Capability (NDC) because in the NDC data transmission standard the airlines know who is shopping and therefore we can return a more relevant offer. We do a lot on our B2C direct channels such as our website and mobile app and in fact during Covid we invested a lot in our to better our personalisation engine so that we are able to differentiate our offers based on who is shopping."

Kyle Moore, Travelport’s Head of Market Insights, outlined what he saw as the benefits of the company’s solution, Travelport+, which he said offered “modern retailing tools to truly drive long term-transformation of the industry”.

Although the research focused on online booking data, Catto noted that: “Offline agents and TMCs should not be kicking back, thinking that they've nailed it.” The shift to online purchasing is now well established that traditional agencies need to respond or risk obsolescence. 

“Offline agents, while able to offer a more human experience, really need to start considering how they will remain relevant to customers who want to buy online, who want that ease of use, or else they risk going the way of Blockbuster,” she warned.

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