Steve Jones’ Say: August

Steve Jones questions why travel brochures are still so pervasive in the industry and whether they should be discontinued.

I popped into a travel agent a couple of weeks ago to see what advice they could offer me on Antarctic cruises. My other half and I soon reach the same milestone birthday so what better time to treat ourselves to the trip of a lifetime. We’re off across the Drake Passage, which is a walk in the park I understand.

After listening to my enquiry, the agent presented me with a stack load of brochures, all beautifully produced with high quality, alluring images of The Great White Continent and its charming inhabitants.

“Great,” I said, “but I won’t take them all. They obviously cost money. I’ll have a quick flick through, take one or two and look online for the rest.”

“Oh no”, the mildly amused consultant replied, “They’re free, take them all.”

Yes, free for you and I but someone has paid for them, not least the environment, I snorted from my big green high horse.

I didn’t actually say that, but I did politely explain what I meant, before departing with fewer brochures than the forest he had originally thrust into my straining arms.

Over the next two or three days I began to notice just how many brochures are still produced. I went into several agencies to see piles of them stacked in cupboards and storerooms, the vast majority of which will fail to render a single booking.

It must be two decades ago now that I was writing about the death of the holiday brochure. It was about the time us know-it-alls were predicting bricks and mortar agents were, well, about to hit a wall.

With the internet becoming a thing, commentators were also predicting the end of the expensively-produced, expensively-distributed physical brochure. Holidaymakers won’t want those anymore, not with the arrival of online resources. Operators, who had long bemoaned brochure costs, were about to save a mint. So what happened?

In fairness, distribution has got a lot smarter. Technology has enabled wholesalers to target their distribution far more effectively, thereby eliminating waste.

But the volume of brochures produced is still clearly enormous. Shouldn’t we be making renewed attempts to scale back brochure production by directing people to view them online? If the consultant I spoke to — perfectly pleasant as he was — had given me website details of where I could find the relevant information, I’d have walked out perfectly happy.

Agents may regard it as counter intuitive to encourage online research, but the prospect of losing a booking would, in reality, be no greater than someone walking out of their agency with a physical brochure.

As consumers, if we are handed something, we will generally take it. If something is taken away, we’ll find alternative ways.

Maybe the industry needs to take action to almost force consumer behaviour to change, rather than wait for change to happen naturally. In an industry of tight margins, the savings from reduced brochure production and distribution should not be sniffed at.

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