Comment: Agents and operators must work together to beat price matchers

Loyalty, innovation and collaboration must be the cornerstones of our industry, says If Only’s Gordon McCreadie

As we find ourselves in the midst of a hectic start to 2024, the travel industry is witnessing a shift which is urging travel agents and operators alike to adapt and innovate.

After all, in the words of modern-day philosopher Ronan Keating, life is a rollercoaster and we’ve just got to ride it.

One notable trend is the increasing demand for multi-centre packages and holidays – a departure from the traditional single-centre destination itineraries. The team at If Only has observed a substantial surge in this type of booking, with 58% of enquiries this January being for either a twin, triple or multi-centre trip, spanning regions such as Asia, India, Sri Lanka, Australia, New Zealand and the Middle East. Equally, the rise in popularity of cruise-and-stay options, as well as exploration in Canada and the US, suggests a growing appetite among travellers for more comprehensive and enriching experiences.

The rationale for agents to think beyond their traditional one-stop offerings is not just a strategic move but a response to evolving customer preferences. Travellers are seeking more from their journeys – they want to explore multiple destinations, extend their stays and indulge in richer experiences.

This shift presents a lucrative opportunity for agents to add value by drawing on their expertise and customer service skills. Luxury specialists can curate multi-centre packages, allowing agents to earn more commission per booking and reducing the likelihood of clients seeking similar options online. In doing so, they minimise the need for consumers to price match, which we all know is a bugbear of our industry and one I will delve deeper into.

Price challenges

The industry we know and love faces numerous challenges as we head into 2024. Two of the most pressing are prices rises and an unexpected surge in price matching. Numerous operators, including ourselves, have invested record amounts of money in the 2024 peaks to support agents with dedicated brochures, marketing campaigns, competitions with money‑can’t-buy prizes, upweighted incentives and additional staff. But despite these concerted efforts, securing bookings has become an uphill battle.

I have heard that some agents, in an attempt to lure customers, are even willing to undercut operators’ direct-sell websites. This is going on while we have the annual madness of vertically integrated brands selling at prices no agent or operator can compete with, yet with those same big brands still expecting the industry to sell their products year-round for ever-decreasing commissions.

These are both practices that raise questions about loyalty and sustainability within the industry.

Critical juncture

In this landscape, the question emerges: does it always come down to price? Despite industry-wide initiatives, agents are grappling with increased price matches, in turn putting pressure on profit margins and making it tougher to close out bookings.

The travel industry, which thrives on partnerships and mutual support, now faces a critical juncture. Instead of engaging in price wars, perhaps it’s time to nurture stronger collaborations, consolidate prices, and prioritise service and quality for your customers over price alone. When agents partner with an operator – and when you have both worked hard on a quote over several weeks or even months – it’s vital you then do your utmost to ensure the customer books with you instead of with a third party that simply reduces the price or offers a few extra quid in incentives.

The evolving dynamics of the UK travel industry demand a proactive approach from agents and operators alike to support each other as partners. Navigating through the challenges while embracing emerging trends will not only secure the industry’s longevity but also provide travellers with the diverse and enriching experiences they seek at competitive prices.

Now, more than ever, loyalty, innovation and collaboration should be the cornerstones that guide us towards a resilient and thriving future.

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