Comment: Good service costs a premium and we should be proud of that

Aito deputy chair Ted Wake believes agents’ reputation depends on offering outstanding value for money instead of the cheapest solutions

Having spent many a sleepless night during Covid hoping that our beloved clients would, one day, miraculously return to their 2019 booking habits, it was a delightful moment when we realised that spring 2023 would indeed see consumers bounce back into the world of travel.

Not only had we survived the trauma of two years of -80%, but we could now celebrate the fact our patience had been rewarded with enthusiastic customers who were so delighted to be able to travel that they were happy to pay 20% more for the privilege. There was a real sense that consumers had, at last, learnt that there were significant benefits from booking their holidays with an expert human being rather than a cheapskate, online provider which mysteriously vanished in their hour of need.

By March 2023, confidence in the travel agent and tour operating communities was growing and we had managed to achieve nearly the same revenue as we had in Q1 2019, but with 25% fewer passengers. So far, so good. And yet, little by little, I have detected that consumers have been slipping back into their bad old habits, spending hours surfing the internet seeking the cheapest deals via an AI-embellished Google algorithm that, somehow, makes it ‘the perfect holiday for them’. And frankly, who can blame them? In the midst of a cost-of-living crisis, it is perfectly understandable to scrutinise prices closely.

Remind customers

However, we now all need to make certain that we remain confident that what we are doing really does add value. It is crucial we take every opportunity to remind discerning travellers that travel can be challenging, especially when help is needed to sort out flight cancellations and other associated problems; our customers need to know that the service provided by expert agents and specialist operators is priceless. We all take immense pride in offering thoughtful advice and, in a flight-cancellation crisis, we offer 24-hour support and alternative travel solutions (at the operator’s expense) to ensure consumers can continue to enjoy their holiday as we iron out logistical challenges.

None of the premium brands in other markets achieved success by making it cheaper

But we also need to be proactive, honest and confident when clients are looking to cut corners at the point of purchase. If you were selling a car and wanted to make it cheaper by removing the airbags, what would the client’s reaction be? We should all think of the expert advice and specialist service provided by agents and operators as the ‘airbag’ element in the holiday – never let a client take the risk of booking without the benefit of your assistance. But, if a client chooses to ignore your advice, you should also have the confidence to say that you cannot help them on this occasion but that you look forward to assisting next time – after they’ve realised that ‘travelling without airbags’ was a bad idea.

Stay confident

According to a recent article in the Financial Times, the current performance by airlines shows that the number of flights impacted by cancellation or delay has increased from 22% pre-pandemic to an alarming 34% post-pandemic. It is a very poor record that can have a significantly negative impact on a client’s holiday. As challenging as the current wave of late flight cancellations is – and none of us can escape them – this adversity might also serve as a timely reminder to consumers that the service that independent travel industry professionals provide is, quite simply, priceless.

We need to stay calm and confident. While our holidays may be a little more expensive, our personal recommendations are based on many years’ experience; our long-term reputation is dependent on not endorsing the cheapest solutions, but on providing honest advice and holidays that offer outstanding overall value for money.

None of the premium brands in other markets achieved success by making it cheaper. And, while you don’t necessarily want to appeal only to drivers of those dependable, older (Swedish-made) Volvo cars, there are many advantages, and it could ensure the long-term success of your business. Plus, you might well have a better chance of bumping into Mrs Wake and her cohort of Volvo enthusiasts – in my experience, a very positive outcome.

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