Comment: Travel agencies are filling the community void

Haslemere Travel and Aito Specialist Travel Agents’ Gemma Antrobus notes an increase in elderly customers just popping in for a chat

Over the years, town centre communities have undergone significant transformations. Historically, they served as bustling hubs where residents gathered for shopping and social interaction. However, modern developments, such as online shopping and suburbanisation, have reshaped these areas; since returning to the office post-pandemic, I have seen my own town change in ways I never would have imagined.

One notable change is the decline of traditional bricks and mortar stores. In Haslemere we are very lucky still to have many wonderful independent shops and boutiques, but I know that other similar towns across the country are not as fortunate.

While consumer behaviour has definitely changed in recent years, thankfully we aren’t seeing many vacant shops in Haslemere; those that are vacated, for whatever reason, seem to be reoccupied quite quickly.

The biggest change has been the loss of all of our banks, building societies and, most recently, the post office. It still perplexes me daily that this affluent Surrey town now has none of these important services. Unlike some retailers in the town, we do not have to bank cash daily, nor do we require the services of the post office as often as we once did. While it’s very frustrating to have to drive out of town during office hours, when these services are needed, my business does not rely on them in the way that other retailers do.

Until last week, I had only seen this frustration from the side of the retailer, but I have now developed a (much sadder) understanding of the impact this is having, and the role that my agency and my team now have.

Seeking a connection

As a travel retailer, with a shop open to the public, I am well aware of how unpredictable foot traffic can be. In most cases, the number of people through the door has no correlation with the number of enquiries you may have, or how many bookings you make, as so much is done on the phone or via email.

However, since losing our banks and other essential services, more and more clients are popping in just for a chat. These people tend to fall into a particular age demographic – over 75.

Most have bookings in the pipeline, or are regular customers, but these visits are not about their travel plans. They seem to be searching for a connection or to fill a gap that perhaps was once fulfilled by a weekly visit to the bank or post office.

Sharing the ‘buzz’

When time and workflow allows, we will chat for as long as we are able, making cups of tea if needed. Even if too busy to chat, we offer a seat in our lounge area, so that the client feels welcome and is included in our ‘buzz’. We always start by chatting about their travels, especially if they have a trip pending; however, often the conversation turns to other topics and it has been fascinating learning so much about their working lives and careers, and even about their grandchildren and pets.

So perhaps travel agencies could fill the community hub void left by the closure of so many banks and post offices. I know there are some who will feel that this goes way beyond the responsibility of the travel agent, and who wouldn’t choose to approach the situation in the same way. But, from our perspective, if clients have trusted us with their money and travel dreams, then making time for a quick catch‑up, on a day when they may not see many other people, is our pleasure and, indeed, an honour.

We like to think that they may discuss their visits in conversations with friends and family and, if so, that positive reinforcement of our brand, our core values and our ethics is priceless, although this is far from the reason that we do it.

Over the years, we have run a huge number of events, always destination or product-focused, and on various levels. We are now seriously considering adding a casual community networking event to the calendar, with the sole aim of connecting those in our local community who might occasionally need a sense of belonging. Watch this space!

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