Speaking at the Aito overseas conference (November 22-25), John de Vial, Abta director of financial protection and financial services, said following the consolidation of the so-called “big four”, travel agents were continuing to shift towards more flexible working solutions.
de Vial was joined by Brett Jardine from the Council of Australian Tour Operators and Gerben Hardeman from the Dutch Travel Trade Association to discuss the future of the travel trade and debate the merits of prevailing agent and tour operator models overseas.
Jardine said while the onset of technology had initially risked making “dinosaurs” of agents, there was greater demand than ever for their services in Australia with agency roles continuing to offer young people a reliable route into the trade.
“There is growth in retail outlets and there is growth in the home-based model,” said Jardine. “We have two very large retail travel agent networks: one is a big corporate that wholly owns its stores and tells staff what to do and sell; the other is a franchise model.
“It’s very effective, it gives kids a chance to have a career in travel. The average age of an agent in Australia is about 30. In North America, it’s probably 55 to 60.”
Hardeman said the Netherlands was experiencing a shift towards more independent travel consultants working within their local communities, mirroring consumers’ appetite for spending with small, local businesses - “people they know” - rather than multiples.
Detailing the British perspective, de Vial said although Abta’s agency membership had remained “relatively stable” in recent years, consolidation had contributed to a significant reduction in physical travel agents as high street duplicates disappeared.
“Franchising in its many forms is developing,” said de Vial. “17% of Abta retail members are actually operated by a franchise operation, or are under something like Hays [Travel] or Midcounties. It’s definitely the new way people are entering it [retail].”
de Vial said the trends observed by Jardine and Hardeman were evident in the UK, although homeworkers in all their forms, he explained, had moved on from distributed call centre models or outside sales reps working pubs and clubs.
“I can see the homeworkers, by number, overtaking physical travel agencies in the next few years,” he said. “Of course, the value of turnover involved in that is a very different story, but we are seeing the same thing [as Jardine and Hardeman].”
He added the next trend he expected to arrive in the UK was the American homeworking franchises looking to gain a foothold in the UK market.