With agents and operators back in business in a big way, the challenge is to keep pace with demand, says Gemma Greenwood, Director, Content Inc.
The travel trade has risen to many challenges over the past few decades, reinventing its role in the face of adversity.
First came the rise of online bookings and mobile phones and the fall of high street retail, and then came the mother of all travel disasters, COVID-19.
But what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and the pandemic has proven the point, with those who survived the unprecedented upheaval of 2020 emerging as a highly sought-after commodity.
Travel agents and tour operators have always been considered advisors, but with travel becoming more complicated than ever, this expert role has been taken to the next level.
From researching travel restrictions and vaccination requirements and making convoluted arrangements, to providing a buffer and finding solutions when things go wrong – think cancelled flights in Europe this summer – the travel trade is more relevant today than ever before.
At the beginning of this year’s busy Northern Hemisphere summer season (July), travellers were 37% more likely to book with a travel professional compared to before the pandemic, according to survey by the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA). Reasons given by consumers were for their up-to-date advice (45%), the security of a package holiday (43%) and for help with COVID-19 requirements (41%). At the same time 94% of members surveyed by Advantage Travel Partnership, the UK’s largest consortium of independent travel agents, reported an increase in new customers this year, many of whom were looking for “reassurance”.
One Advantage agent told inews: “I think the worth of a travel agent has never been stronger and the package holiday is back in vogue.”
More than 71% of Europeans were planning to travel this summer, a 14-percentage-point increase on last year, according to weforum.org, while European travel giant Tui Group says summer 2022 bookings have already reached 90% of summer 2019 levels. Average prices, it says, are up 18% with holidaymakers booking more package holidays and higher value services such as room upgrades and longer stays.
A recent report produced for World Travel Market (WTM) by ForwardKeys reveals that in Q3 2022 (July, August and September), global air travel is set to reach 65% of where it was before the pandemic in 2019, with beach holidays driving demand. This is most evident in the Americas where Q3 bookings for air travel to the Caribbean, Central America and Mexico are 5% ahead of 2019 levels.
While pent-up demand, coupled with the reassurance factor, are top drivers of business to travel agents and operators, customers are also looking to experts to help them save money as inflation – and in many countries, energy prices – escalate, squeezing household budgets.
Travellers are pinning their hopes on the travel trade to help find them good deals and at the same time, calling on them when flight cancellations, such is the trend in Europe right now, threaten to scupper their travel plans.
But is it really happy days for agent and operator experts who can finally make hay while the sun shines?
The travel and tourism staff shortages resulting from the pandemic, which have been well documented, including in my previous WTM blog, are a serious barrier to progress, not to mention profitability.
Travel agents and tour operators are struggling to replace advisors lost during the pandemic and therefore lacking the manpower to meet demand.
In the EU, 1.2 million travel and tourism jobs remain unfilled in 202, according to World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) analysis, and travel agencies are the worst hit with a 30% shortfall (nearly one in three vacancies unfilled). In Italy, the country most affected by tourism sector staff shortages with 250,000 workers missing this year, travel agencies are once again the worst affected, facing nearly half (42%) of unfulfilled vacancies, says the WTTC.
It’s the same story Down Under with agencies in Australia turning customers away because they don’t have the staff to deal with the number of requests, according to the Australian Federation of Travel Agents (AFTA), speaking to the ABC.
Keeping up with demand
The travel sector will only truly recover when the travel advisors lost during the pandemic are replaced. Until then the renaissance the travel trade is witnessing is somewhat impeded.
However, there are glimmers of hope, with companies such as Flight Centre attracting around 4,500 applicants a month in Australia alone as the sector “regains its appeal among jobseekers”.
Speaking to Travel Weekly, the company said it was targeting experienced travel agents displaced during the pandemic and had reinstated its novice recruitment programmes, with newcomers “quickly finding their feet”.
While recruiting travel advisors to provide a face-to-face service is a priority, the company has also invested in developing highly personalised digital technology as part of its commitment to customer care.
The long-term fixes to meet and manage customer demand are clear – invest in technology to do the ‘easy’ jobs and empower customers to make choices and of course, implement a talent recruitment and retention strategy that meets the demands of today’s workforce.
In the short term, here are three quick fixes:
To reduce the amount of time spent dealing with calls and requests related to ‘Frequently Asked Questions’, create a list of FAQs and provide the answers, posting them online and regularly updating them. Send an email to all regular customers informing them of this service and encouraging them to take a look before they give you a call.
Do your research
Understand the types of travel experiences people are prioritising ahead of the next season and don’t just prepare packages and prices, but destination top tips and travel information, anticipating what travellers might ask.
Team up with suppliers to ascertain how you can pool talent resources to best serve customers and optimise sales.
Take part at World Travel Market London 2022 to learn more about the current staff shortages and how to attract talent in travel.