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TRAVEL AGENTS: A relic of your parent’s generation?

Customer Experience Strategist Colin Smith gets a jolt to the system when he delves a little deeper into how and why travel agents are still thriving.

Customer Experience Strategist Colin Smith gets a jolt to the system when he delves a little deeper into how and why travel agents are still thriving.

Unsurprisingly as a Customer Experience strategist, I spend quite a lot of my life talking about what great customer service looks like.

But when my friend Ian Lowe gave the example of a travel agent who goes the extra mile being a great experience, it jarred with me.

Teetering as I do between Gen X and Y, I can’t think of anyone in my peer group who would use a travel agent.

They’re a relic of my parent’s generation, with their gaudy storefronts and cheesy adverts.

We automatically go online, assuming that by cutting out the middleman and doing the hard work ourselves, we will earn the best deal.

Then two things landed in my inbox recently that made me rethink this.

The first was an article in The Economist, suggesting that by buying purely on price, we passengers are responsible for the increasingly unpleasant ‘economy experience’.

The second was a profile by CMO of Flight Centre’s new Head of Customer Experience, Darren Wright.

Travel agents rank alongside newspapers and music stores as industries vulnerable to digital disruption, but some quick research shows Flight Centre are not just surviving, but growing at a healthy 10-20% annually. And despite their guarantee to beat any airline price, they are still maintaining a healthy 13-14% margin.


The Flight Centre Cairns Central team. Just one of many who are thriving

So how are they doing this?

  • Flight Centre has clearly defined the roles within its omni-channel strategy. Online is for content and discovery, but if you want to guarantee the best prices, you need to buy on the phone or in store.
  • They have absolutely committed to their stores by adding more staff, making layouts more open and collaborative and extending opening hours.
  • They have focused on the core capabilities where online can’t compete, such as expertise. This is not just recommending destinations, but also tailoring itineraries and advising on visa requirements.
  • They provide great service at the ‘moments of truth’, updating customers on changes to itineraries and making alternative arrangements where needed.
  • They leverage customer insight, capturing information online to refine customer personas and provide advice to colleagues in stores and on the phones.

In sharp contrast, travel sites are criticised for high transaction fees, non-refundable tickets and those allegations of cookies raising prices that just won’t go away.

Whether bricks and mortar is part of Flight Centre’s long-term strategy, or just an asset to be milked until its inevitable decline is not clear.

However the next time I fly, I might have to swallow my pride and try it myself.

How do other retailers compare do you think? Share your thoughts below.


Colin Smith very kindly submitted this story to us. You can view the original story on The Customer Experience Company website here.

Colin Smith is Head of Customer Strategy at The Customer Experience Company in Sydney, Australia. He works with companies to blend customer-centricity, data and innovation to create profitable growth. He has 15 years experience working throughout Australasia, Asia and Europe.  You can get in touch with Colin here.