European travel agents survive online onslaught
Berlin: The doomsayers were 100% certain that the internet would be the death of travel agents.
But in Europe's three biggest economies, the industry is still very much alive and kicking as consumers prefer expert advice and a friendly face when it comes to booking their holidays.
In France, the number of travel agents has held steady for the past five years.
In Britain, business "is also buoyant", said Sean Tipton, spokesman for the ABTA travel association.
While he could not strictly say the number of high street travel agents had increased, "it would be true to say that the amount of business agents are doing is at record levels."
"Tour operators, in particular Virgin Holidays and Kuoni, have opened shops,'' Tipton added.
Over in Germany, the number of travel agents actually increased for the second year in a row last year.
And total revenues in the sector rose 3% to €23.7 billion ($26.3 billion).
"There are two reasons: one is that there are more tourists than before and two is that platforms are not substitutes to human interaction," said Taleb Rifai, secretary general of the World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), at this month's ITB travel trade fair in Berlin.
This month, DER Touristik, a subsidiary of retail giant REWE Group, is preparing to open a new travel centre in central Berlin.
"We're opening up new travel agents because we remain convinced that personalised advice will continue to be very important," said Andreas Heimann, who is in charge of travel agencies at DER Touristik.
Last year 42% of Germans booked their holidays via travel agents, compared with 36% who booked via the internet.
Nevertheless, the gap has narrowed significantly since 2005, according to an annual study compiled by the research group FUR and presented at the ITB fair last week.
When it comes to booking cruises, tours or family vacations, people prefer to do so via a travel agent, where they can be sure of a high degree of expertise and advice.
"The more exotic the destination, the higher the price, the less customers want to take risks when booking a holiday," said Heimann.
"Nevertheless, customers are already very well-informed when they go to a travel agent and come into the store with very detailed questions,'' he said.
Consulting a travel agent also saves time.
"On average, holidaymakers spend 11 hours researching online before booking a trip. A travel agent does it much quicker," Heimann continued.
Doerte Nordbeck of the market research group GfK SE pointed to the high density of travel agents in Germany, with as many 9,880 operating in Europe's biggest economy, equivalent to 11.2 for every 100,000 inhabitants.
"You're never very far from the next travel agent. It's easy and convenient," he said.
Furthermore, the price is principally the same whether you book online or via a travel agent.
In France, high-street travel agents are bravely holding their own. Over the past five years, their number has been more or less stable at around 4,000 registered businesses.
A few years ago, it was regarded as "square" to book via a travel agent.
"But for around a year now, I have the feeling that more travel agents are opening stores," said Jean-Marc Roze, secretary general of the national travel agents' union SNAV.
Even players who started out as purely web operators, such as Promovacances, have opened bricks-and-mortar shops for customers to drop by.
As result, it seems too early to sound the death knell for the travel agent industry just yet.
"The network is relatively stable and I think it will remain so in the coming years, especially as various crises in different countries makes it all the more important for travellers to receive sound and expert advice about their destination,'' said Nordbeck.
"It is not as if the Internet and physical travel agents are polar opposites,'' said SNAV's Roze.
"People switch constantly from one to the other. That's why it's important for operators to be present in both areas," he said.
DER Touristik is keen that all of its agents have online channels. E-mail, telephone, face-to-face or online chat facilities: everything is possible when it comes to booking the holiday of your dreams. afp