High streets and town centres are struggling but bricks-and-mortar agencies can thrive if they embrace the theatrical, says Andrew Don
A man walks into a travel agency. This particular one has cinema-style screens that show exotic fish swimming in a lagoon around water bungalows in a Maldives resort, and footprints in white sand. It is within touching distance.
Our hypothetical customer can almost feel the heat of the sun easing the pain from his arthritic knees.
He walks to the bar where he is served a cocktail before relaxing in the mock-up Emirates Lounge.
The urge to book a luxury trip is overwhelming – at least, that’s the theory thanks to the show the agency puts on. It’s the theatrical selling of holidays at its best.
Hardly a week passes without newspapers bemoaning the plight of high streets and town centres.
Last year’s Grimsey Review 2 on reshaping town centres includes figures from the Local Data Company (LDC) that showed a decline of 1,229 travel agency branches between 2013 and 2017.
Updated LDC data shows that a further 87 bit the dust in 2018, although this was significantly slower than in 2017, when 679 closed.
Business rates are crippling high streets along with limited or pricey parking, and the growth of online trading – though the latter has also been an opportunity for some.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. Grimsey’s report highlights the desirability of stores focused on “multi-sensory” personal experiences.
The report’s author, Bill Grimsey, says it’s imperative that bricks-and-mortar travel agencies continue to embrace technology within their stores, including use of virtual and augmented reality so customers “experience, or get a taste of what they are going to buy in a much better way”.
“If you can get a flavour – an experience – it will make a huge difference,” Grimsey adds.
Standout examples include the Sandals & Beaches concept store in Fulham, London; Destinology in Wilmslow, Cheshire; and Glen Travel in Blantyre, South Lanarkshire.
Destinology’s cutting-edge show branch in Wilmslow boasts large cinema-style screens on the walls, transforming brochures into live video.
Cinema-style areas incorporate features such as an expert bar for consultations with staff. High-definition screens give customers a taste of stunning locations while clients can use touchscreen tablets to search for holiday ideas rather than rely on static brochures.
The store hosts special evenings focused on specific locations. Events have included Vegas showgirls, South African drumming, a Michael Bublé tribute act, cocktail-making with Jumeirah Hotels & Resorts and a Far East Fusion event.
Karl Thompson, managing director of tour operator Unique Caribbean Holidays UK Ltd, which has the Sandals & Beaches concept store, says the outlet offers an immersive high-street experience to reflect elements of its resorts and signature suites, making visitors feel as though they’re stepping into the Caribbean.
It includes a boardwalk over the “sea” at the entrance, plus digital screens with island and resort images designed to inspire visitors. The shop has a replica Rondoval suite and a dedicated Weddings Lounge with examples of wedding decor that guests can mix and match via the brands’ customisable weddings concepts.
It is divided into themed zones, including a family zone where parents can speak to sales executives while their children enjoy colouring in and playing with toys or Xbox consoles.
“Everywhere guests look there’ll be something that reminds them of the Caribbean to help them imagine themselves in one of our resorts,” says Thompson.
He believes there is room for travel agencies to be more interactive and focus on digital design elements, with theatrical innovation helping to drive sales and improve the customer experience.
You’ve heard the expression “life’s a stage” but increasingly, it seems, so are travel agencies.
Concept: Glen Travel in Blantyre incorporates bars and a replica VIP airline lounge. Glen says: “For me it’s all about the relationship with the client. We wanted to focus more on in-house events to interact better with our customers and our industry partners, and to showcase new and existing products,” says Glen Travel owner Alan Glen.
Scene-setting: The agency has a fully stocked Schooner bar – an ideal focal point for client events. An overhead projector depicts cruise scenes and a 75-inch smart TV is available for presentations.
Luxury treatment: The Emirates Lounge is a replica of the one at Glasgow airport – a private VIP area for clients looking for special holidays such as honeymoons, weddings abroad and other celebrations.
Showtime: “Thanks to the latest entertainment technology, we can showcase hotels, cruises and destinations and discuss the clients’ requirements,” says Glen.
Personal touch: “Last but not least, we have the UK’s first land-based Silversea Suite,” adds Glen. “Again, it’s a luxurious meeting room where we can chat with clients in complete privacy.”