While many voices have predicted the death of travel agents – a sector apparently destined to fail in a new era of online booking options – one country at least appears to be bucking the trend.
Speaking to Travel Daily this week, Andrew Olsen, CEO of the Travel Agents Association of New Zealand (TAANZ), which represents 90% of the country’s agencies, revealed that New Zealand’s unique consumer landscape is allowing travel agencies to not only survive, but thrive.
“Many people are talking about a downturn in travel agency sector, but we’re not seeing that,” Olsen told Travel Daily. “There was a decline, but that has arrested and flattened.”
Travel agents in New Zealand have, according to Olsen, emerged from the “DIY onslaught” of online travel bookings, and bricks and mortar agencies are now seeing a resurgence.
Rising levels of inbound and outbound tourism (the sector has now overtaken dairy to become New Zealand’s number one GDP earner), supportive government policies and rise in the number of airlines permitted landing rights in the country, have combined with a “wane in the romance of self-booking” to fuel a strong rebound for New Zealand’s travel agents, according to Olsen.
But it is the country’s strong community culture that has really allowed travel agencies to thrive in New Zealand.
“There is a unique business landscape,” Olsen explained. “Many provincial towns and cities have three, four or more travel agencies on the High Street. They deal with communities. For many consumers, their small town is the epicentre of their life – they’ve built up a 20-year relationship with their travel agent.”
Travel agents across the country’s towns and cities have “thousands of years of intelligence and experience”, Olsen said, which gives them a unique advantage over the vast array of online shopping options now available.
The online space is important in New Zealand however, with many consumers using the internet to research their trips. But in many cases they will take their online findings to their travel agent, and consumers are “happy to pay” for the expert advice and peace of mind that an agent provides.
“Travellers research online, then travel agents put customer care and protection on top of that,” said Olsen. “The customer is telling the agent: ‘this is what we want; how do we get there?’.”
Technology has also provided opportunities for agents to move out of bricks and mortar, Olsen revealed, leading to a substantial increase in home-based agents, or “travel brokers”.
And harnessing new technology will also be extremely important in allowing bricks and mortar agencies to expand and improve their customer offerings in future.
“The big thing now for travel agents to consider is: ‘how many more customers can I touch without expanding my infrastructure’?” said Olsen. Technology, and especially harnessing the ability to bring the travel experience to life, will become an increasingly important part of the travel agency role, he believes.
Envisaging a future of state-of-the-art high street stores, which “spoil customers with gadgetry”, Olsen predicted that travel agencies will need to provide customers with a “virtual pre-travel experience” – sharing destination information and imagery with their clients in a virtual way, and not necessarily in the office.
“Technology will increase the capabilities of travel agents, increasing their scale,” said Olsen. And this, he believes, forms part of a bright future for the travel agent sector in New Zealand.
“[I believe] we will continue to see year-on-year growth – agents will continue to successfully exist and grow. The future is really exciting for our industry,” he concluded.