Agents have chosen discounting as the number one concern facing them this year – but are upbeat about business overall, according to Carnival Cruise Line’s Travel Agent Mood Index. Rob Gill reports.
Discounting has reclaimed its position as the biggest single challenge facing the travel industry in 2017, according to agents – overtaking last year’s number one concern: security.
This was one of the findings of the Travel Agent Mood Index, which is put together every year by Carnival Cruise Line from a survey of agents across the UK.
This year’s study included 309 agents working for online travel agencies, multiples, independent high street shops and homeworkers.
The survey, which was conducted in January, looked at the mood of agents; confidence levels; market predictions, booking trends, major challenges and the popularity of destinations and types of holiday.
When asked about the single biggest challenge currently facing the travel industry, 42% of agents said discounting was their biggest concern, followed by 33% who thought that the most significant issue continued to be safety and security.
This marked a departure from last year’s results when 66% of agents said safety and security were the major challenges and only 20% said that discounting was the number one problem.
Other potential challenges affecting the industry for agents in 2017 included consumer confidence (13%) and currency fluctuations (10%) following the slump in the value of the pound since last summer’s vote for the UK to leave the European Union.
There was good news for cruise bookings with around half of agents (50.2%) enjoying “strong” forward bookings for this year, with another 41.7% saying cruise bookings had been “average” so far, and only 8.1% seeing “weak” sales in 2017.
Despite this, agents continued to see discounting as a major challenge to selling cruise holidays, with 23.5% saying it was the number one concern – although this was closely followed by a lack of consumer awareness about the cruise industry, at 21.2%, and a consumer belief that cruise is too expensive, at 20.9%.
The vast majority of agents (84.3%) felt there was still too much discounting within the cruise market, although more encouraging was the fact that 48.7% of agents thought that the situation had been improving over the past year.
One agent said: “I feel that discounting is a huge problem – a few years back some cruise companies stamped it out for a while and bookings increased for us. Why not try it again?”
Another respondent added: “I do think discounts on cruise have gone stupid again. Agents are fighting for business and cruise companies are cutting prices closer to departure.”
Most of the discounting of cruises came from online travel agencies and call centres with around two-thirds of them admitting that they took part in the practice. The majority of independent shops, multiple agencies and homeworkers surveyed said they did not discount cruises.
An independent agent said: “I would like to see high street agents getting a fairer share of business – cruise club/newspaper travel clubs offer packages that we cannot compete with.”
As for the main barriers to booking cruises rather than land-based holidays, the main problem continues to be the perception of consumers that a cruise is for older people, with 38.9% of agents citing this as the major obstacle to securing new-to-cruise customers.
The other main stumbling block to cruise bookings was the view of consumers that the overall price is too expensive (31.7%) while holidaymakers are also worried about being confined to a ship (14.7%) and not having enough time to spend in one destination (6.9%).
“I am still finding new-to-cruise customers who are not willing to try cruises due to the high costs once onboard the ship – gratuities, drinks, excursions etc,” said one agent.
The majority of consultants (more than 70%) were confident that there was enough demand for cruise holidays in the UK to fill capacity, while only 29% were concerned about there being too much capacity in the market.
Meanwhile, agents’ most persistent request to cruise lines was to be invited on more fam trips, followed by “more attempts to stamp out discounting by agents” and an increase in commission.
“We need to experience the product as cruises are so different – I drove over three hours for an Azamara ship visit, then sold two straight away afterwards,” claimed one agent.
Looking at wider travel industry trends, agents who responded to the survey said that the most popular types of holidays sold in 2016 were cruises (24%) and all-inclusive resorts (24%), followed by beach holidays (21%), city breaks (13%) and touring and adventure itineraries (9%).
In terms of the way agents sold holidays in 2016, package holidays still dominated, with 62.5% of bookings and around 37.5% of trips dynamically packaged.
During 2017, more than one-third of agents (37%) said they were expecting their most popular type of holiday to be all-inclusives, followed by cruises (27%) and beach breaks (20%).
“I do think discounts on cruise have gone stupid again. Agents are fighting for business and cruise companies are cutting prices closer to departure.”
one respondent to the Travel Agent Mood Index
For summer bookings, agents continued to get the bulk of their business from couples (48.8%) and families (48.2%), with solo travellers accounting for only 0.99% of total sales.
Nearly one-fifth of agents (18%) also said they had seen an increase in enquiries for LGBT-friendly holidays, with around 40% saying these requests had stayed at the same level as in the previous years.
During the winter season, bookings were dominated by couples, who accounted for 83.8% of all sales, while families made up around 11% of all customers.
In terms of destination choice, agents expected that the most popular options would continue to be Spain and the Canary islands followed by the United States, the Caribbean and Greece.
When asked about the health of the travel industry, the majority of agents said they felt relatively “positive” rather than “negative”, while more than 70% said that they hit their sales targets during 2016.
Less positively, more than half of respondents (54%) felt that holidaymakers were using agents less frequently this year than during 2016, with 31% saying that this level was “roughly the same as last year”.