How will the high street travel agency still maintain its strategic advantage in the face of such a rapidly evolving marketplace? It's a question I repeatedly find myself asking.

Data by market research company, Skift, has already shown a consistent decline in the number of travel agencies. In fact, one of the world’s oldest high street travel agents, Thomas Cook, recently closed 195 shops, highlighting a contemporary issue for the high street travel agency.

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Once upon a time, consumers would purchase tourism services exclusively from high street travel agencies. However, this system is currently under fire. Since Information Technology enabled electronic markets to promote the bypassing of intermediaries, consumers have been given more direct access to travel providers.

A prime example of this is when British Airways and sister carrier Iberia, pushed towards booking direct by imposing an £8 fee on all sales through Global Distribution Systems. An emphasis on direct bookings allows travel suppliers to easily gather useful customer data, which can later be used to upsell additional travel products and extras.

With that said, there is, however, still a large consumer demand for knowledge and more diverse tourism. Sure, Information Technology can be credited for being able to provide this, but it can be argued that the human element in a travel agency provides more tailored experiences and delivers unique knowledge, something travellers still value greatly.

After all, the human presence pertains to one of the most important roles of the travel agent, which is to be an active ‘advisor’ to the traveller. However, given the uptake of technology as a means to access travel knowledge, the necessity of the human presence is put under question.

With the Internet becoming full of competition from direct sellers it can be difficult to determine who provides the consumer with the most relevant recommendations.

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According to a study by the European Commission, 19% of survey respondents considered recommendations from a travel agent as one of the top three most important sources when making travel plans. contrastingly, a Google study showed 60% of respondents used search engines and 36% used review sites when planning travel.

Furthermore, a study by Travel Weekly found 74% of travel agent users thought their agent was a specialist and those travellers that use a travel agency were likely to spend more, especially with purchases greater than $8,000.

Although the use of online could be worrying for an agent, a deeper analysis of how the consumer uses the Internet suggests that this shouldn’t be the case.

Google's data doesn’t entirely suggest that this hinders the agency’s role as an advisor. 65% of their survey respondents admitted to researching online before deciding where or how they want to travel, with 83% indicating they use social networks, video and photo sites to inspire them to start thinking about taking a trip. Essentially, the internet can be considered as a space of inspiration, not in-depth knowledge.

The travel agent could, therefore, be seen as a 'validator' of information, which could be seen as complementary to the way in which consumers use the internet. Consequently, by acting as ‘validator’ of a large volume of potentially inaccurate online information, the advisory role of the travel agent could continue to be a key area of value.

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In future, this will most likely be the preferred customer journey when researching, booking and experiencing leisure travel. It will also be important for the travel agency to embrace new technologies to act as the ‘validator’ of online information as well as to develop new, effective consumer touch points and sales channels.

Personal interaction is also favoured heavily by consumers when purchasing expensive and premium travel products. Therefore it will be crucial for any travel agency to ensure they are maintaining trained and experienced consultants.

I would also advise specialising in a particular area so as to provide unique knowledge that the consumer would consider more insightful. The consumer may also see this as a safer option and it also gives the travel agent the incentive to search for exclusive deals within their chosen specialised area of tourism.

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Consumers that know what they want and when they want it tend to book direct. They are also less inclined to purchase exclusive travel products, additional luxuries and are more price sensitive. By focusing on customers searching for travel itineraries with greater complexity the travel agent’s core areas of value are amplified.

Moving forward, the travel agency must maintain its human presence as a desirable tool to create holidays to the specification of the customer, this added level of service will set it apart from larger businesses. This will also ensure that the travel agency will not become obsolete and, thus, maintain a sustainable strategic position.

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