Thoughts by our CEO, Anthony Rawlins
Our holiday was completely ruined”, “
The worst birthday I’ve had by far”. Based on news reports that came out of UK airports this summer, coupled with the endless delays, it's left a bitter taste in the mouth of many holidaymakers. Not because the experience people had at their holiday destination was bad, but because travelling to and from their destination was so cataclysmically abysmal.
In my experience, if a holiday starts and ends well then your view of the middle bit tends to be a lot more positive. But if its book-ended by delays (think four hours to claim your baggage at a small airport like Bristol), that “holiday feeling” soon evaporates to the point where many family, friends and colleagues I’ve spoken to are rethinking next year’s plans. And these issues are
overwhelmingly affecting short-haul flights to and from European destinations.
Now, there are many reasons for this summer’s travel chaos. Brexit hasn’t done the travel industry any favours, but different Covid protocols in different countries, fewer staff to fly planes, manage check-ins, handle baggage and run security, and extreme weather events and forest fires haven’t helped. Add to this, low-cost carriers over-booking flights and you have the perfect storm for creating huge delays and numerous last minute cancellations – compounded further by tone-deaf communications from airlines, airports and online travel agents (OTAs).
The question is: will it all be sorted out by next summer? Personally, I suspect not. I think the industry’s recruitment issues post-pandemic run deep and will continue for a few years yet. For the time being, it seems the very concept of “short-haul” is a complete illusion.
Another issue is the poor customer service from OTAs during the transit part of a holiday. Do these outfits really know the travel routes they’re sending people on? How good will customer service be if a flight has to be diverted from, for example, Barcelona to Valencia 350km away (the answer, based on my own recent experience, is “non-existent”)? And how can they offer a personal level of service when their business model is based on quantity over quality? The reality is they can’t.
Opportunity knocks for long-haul
And it’s against this backdrop, I see several opportunities for traditional travel agents to make up some of the ground they’ve lost to OTAs in the last 10 or so years. The first thing they could do is to start promoting holiday destinations beyond Europe – and, in doing so, ensure a high-quality holiday experience from start to finish.
The simple truth is that long-haul flights (so flights upwards of six hours) are less likely to be delayed or cancelled. They also have fewer competitors, so are less price sensitive (and therefore more profitable for airlines), and generally provide better customer service.
Also, when you take a long-haul flight you typically allow for a day’s travel anyway, so any delays have a much lower impact on your travel experience than a short-haul flight.
On a side note, I think this summer’s delays and all-round unpredictability will reverse the trend for city and micro-breaks that was beginning to surface in 2019. After all, why risk a three or four-day break when you might end up spending one or two of those days stuck in a departure lounge? So I wouldn’t be surprised to see people choosing to have fewer holidays, but going further afield.
New experiences in far-flung places…
Obviously, long-haul flights open up almost limitless holiday opportunities for holiday travel. More exotic destinations like Africa, the Americas, the Middle East and Asia come into play, along with more unique experiences. For example, my sister just returned from Barbados where she was feeding turtles off a pier, so the experience can be amazingly different from all these European beach resorts that, in many respects, are starting to all feel very samey – whether you’re going to Spain, Greece, Italy, or Turkey. This is a chance for traditional travel agents to talk more about the exotic destinations and unique experiences long-haul destinations open up for travellers.
And while the flight may cost more, this is often offset by prices locally, so your money goes further (though not necessarily in places like Dubai or the US). Many parts of Europe are becoming increasingly expensive anyway, and this is being further exacerbated as Sterling struggles to maintain its value against the Euro and inflation bites. And while travelling long-haul generates a bigger carbon footprint, passengers can reduce the impact they have on the environment by carbon offsetting their flights with some of the money they save staying in cheaper destinations. It’s also easy to do through carbon-offsetting schemes like
Climate Impact or
Time to take it personally
Ultimately, the biggest advantage of traditional travel agents over OTAs is the personal and bespoke service they can offer. And in these current climes, people need their knowledge, experience and advice more than ever – to the point it's no longer a luxury, but a necessity. People will always need holidays, after all.
Of course, the other obvious alternative to short-haul flights is to avoid them altogether and holiday in the UK. And after the summer we’ve just had (and the general trend towards warmer, drier summers), are there more opportunities for travel agents to promote great British holidays? Aside from holidaymakers spending their money in the UK economy, it’s also much better for the environment.
Only time will tell whether this European short-haul misery results in either more long-haul or domestic holiday bookings. Personally, I can’t see short-haul disruption being resolved anytime soon. Not unless the industry quickly recruits and invests in the tens of thousands of people it laid off over the pandemic.
But what is clear is that this represents a real opportunity for traditional travel agents to play on their biggest strengths: their knowledge, their experience, and their ability to provide a highly personal and bespoke service to travellers – wherever their holidays might take them.
Anthony Rawlins, Navigate CEO
I’ve spent the last 18 years honing my marketing and strategic skills in the travel, tourism and experience sectors. As an entrepreneur, I’ve also created several other companies to make the most of opportunities I see in our industry and the wider world of business.