AFTA view: online vs offline agents

Jayson Westbury, chief executive AFTA

It seems to me that the conversation returning to the industry about online versus offline travel agents is nothing more than a gratuitous self-promotion of different companies’ capabilities.

The real question is not about online versus offline. The real question is travel agents – regardless of the medium or channel they choose to be in – versus suppliers selling directly.

Travel agents of all shapes and sizes are here to stay for many more years, in fact in my opinion beyond the next decade.

The fact is, consumers are always going to look for someone else to do the things they don’t want to do, and let’s be honest, organising a trip can be time consuming and frustrating. For that reason alone, the humble travel agent is not going anywhere.

Perhaps as new technology finds its way into the travel industry, travel agents of different shapes and sizes may look to enhance or change their offer to meet the needs of their customers, but regardless of these changes, the key is keeping the client happy and loyal.

If the customer wants to connect to the travel agent via the internet, they will. If they want to talk to a human, then they will. It is all about the service and experience the customer has and how to build a value proposition that keeps the customer coming back. And also, from the travel agent’s perspective, it is about making sure they have the right products at the right price point and that they are best placed to offer choice.

Choice is in fact the one thing that direct suppliers do not have. They are hardly going to put up offers from their competitors on their website. So the travel agent is once again best placed to offer the customer choice across a range of brands within the particular travel category they are looking for.

Even the metasearch phenomena is about choice. Consumers are going to these search sites which emulate what travel agents have been doing for years – providing choice. But the difference is they don’t offer any advice other than price. For some consumers that does the trick. But the minute a question pops into their head they hit a snag.

So from where I sit, the conversation that has been going on within the industry about online travel agents versus offline travel agents is misguided in its inputs and energy.

As a sector, travel agents should be sticking together and working on common goals to ensure they have the tools, technology and regulatory framework to prosper and grow.

AFTA will always support the travel agent channel first, in particular those in the ATAS industry accreditation scheme.

Over the coming months AFTA will be rolling out new initiatives to further promote travel agents to consumers based on the services, experience and knowledge they offer. This year is looking good for outbound travel and I am sure the ongoing supportive marketing efforts of AFTA will help make it a successful one for all ATAS accredited travel agents.

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