Digital and the Travel Industry: Is there still a place for the high street?

Posted: July 3, 2015

Victoria Cattan – Digital Development Manager

Digital has changed the way we buy and consume pretty much everything, and the travel industry is no exception. As of August last year, TUI Travel reported that online bookings made up 51% of total sales, surpassing bookings made on the high street, and this is only set to increase this year. For simple breaks and short haul holidays, many of us regard a high street travel agency, or even someone at the end of the phone, quite surplus to requirements. I’m definitely one of those people. If it’s a straightforward kind of booking, I have Google, Lonely Planet, Trip Advisor, and sites like Airbnb, with its beautiful imagery, search functionality, and helpful reviews. I also have myriad low cost airline sites which make flight booking very painless.

Indeed, we don’t even really need a desktop experience to facilitate our holiday bookings any more. Econsultancy recently reported that there has been a 50% increase in mobile use across business and leisure travellers, and stated that mobile and conversion optimisation are two main areas of concern for travel businesses in 2015.

Airbnb’s in-app experience is just as good as on desktop, and apps such as Booking.com’s, which I recently discovered and now couldn’t live without, use your location to serve personalised results, along with a pretty seamless user experience. Booking.com’s app also keeps everything in a travel wallet which makes managing and viewing bookings incredibly easy.

Booking.com app

But, what about when it comes to more than a flight and a hotel? When it comes to adventure holidays, honeymoons, around the world tours, safaris, and other such exciting things? Surely there comes a point where you need a bit of human reassurance, the kind that your iPad cannot offer? I would argue that this is true. However, there was much controversy in the office when I made this statement, so I did a quick poll. My thoughts were confirmed when it came to short haul: 79% of us chose online only for booking, and less than 4% said they would book only with a travel agent. The picture becomes a bit more mixed when it came to long haul, though. Still, 45% of us would book only online, but 43% would use a combination of online booking and travel consultants on the phone or in-store, and 7.5% would only book long haul with an agent. What’s more, only 19% of us said we actually liked dealing with travel agents.

short haul

 

long haul

 

 

travel agents

Long haul, it seems, is the market where human reassurance is still seen, at least by some, as a valued commodity. Look at the business model for companies like Trailfinders and Bridge the World; you can browse adventures online, and whet your appetite with the beautiful imagery, but Trailfinders then invite you to ‘say hello to the fastest booking engine in travel’; their consultants. The only route to booking is on the phone, or in-store. I went on a holiday of a lifetime type trip to Borneo last year, and I organised everything on the phone, with a consultant at Bridge The World. Having the advice of someone who was highly trained and had visited the country was definitely invaluable when it came to organising treks and something so adventurous. Equally, I booked a flight to Vietnam for this August through STA Travel. I shopped around first on sites like Skyscanner, and I could have booked online, but something about calling a consultant to sort the finer details made me feel better, so that’s what I did. That said, Booking.com’s coverage is so extensive that I reverted to their app for everything else, and if I wanted opinions on specific destinations, I turned to travel blogs for advice.

There’s no arguing that the digital revolution has made the world smaller, and made travel quicker, easier, and more informed. But for a little while yet, for me, there’s a place for the high street agency and for the reassurance of travel consultants, even if it isn’t across the whole travel market.