The high-profile failures of some travel agents over the past 18 months have failed to dent the reputation of the travel industry, according to research by AFTA.
AFTA’s Marketing and Communications Manager – Accreditation, Joanne Tralaggan, told an industry seminar that AFTA’s experience showed the way consumers think “is very different to the way we as a travel community think. But the truth is what the consumer believes matters most, as they are the ones who decide who they will book with.”
Tralaggan said some in the industry believed that without “compensation for loss when a business goes broke” being a cornerstone of the ATAS value proposition, the industry was doomed.
“But that’s not what consumers think. Our research said this clearly. I would be willing to put money on the fact that the last 18 months, even with some business failures in our industry, it has not in any way deteriorated the industry’s reputation.”
The current numbers and performance of travel agents also served to debunk the myth, she said.
Addressing the Travel Daze seminar at the Belvoir Street Theatre in the inner-Sydney suburb of Surry Hills, Tralaggan reminded her audience that 83% of outbound travel is booked through a travel agent.
“This is an impressive figure for an industry that has many who would have you believe that the travel agents’ days are numbered.”
Agents were more relevant today than ever before, Tralaggan declared.
“Travel agents are the ones that help consumers navigate through an enormous amount of travel product. They help consumers wade through information and deals pushed upon them through every possible medium available in this modern world.”
Consumers, who made a high emotional investment in their holiday, wanted a level of certainly that they would receive what they had booked and paid for.
Tralaggan said said the newly deregulated environment provided travel agents with “the flexibility to conduct business in innovative ways to meet the needs and purchase behaviours of today’s modern traveller and provide the ‘emotional’ certainty that they desire.”
Speaking about last year’s removal of licensing and the introduction of ATAS – the AFTA Travel Accreditation Scheme – Tralaggan said the change had freed the travel industry of “slow moving, out-of-date, difficult-to-change, government regulation” and replaced it with industry-led accreditation “that is commercially rational, nimble, free-footed and absolutely fit for purpose”.
That was relevant because greater access to products direct through the internet had led to high consumer expectations.
Travel agents therefore had to be able to offer something more than what consumers could organise themselves.
“Businesses need to evolve to be relevant and appealing to the consumer. Our research indicates that, the ‘something’ consumers are seeking is ‘certainty’.
“Certainty that comes with fulfilled expectations of better service, receiving up to date and accurate information, a business with integrity and so on. Our research also shows that this ‘certainty’ is closely tied with ‘accreditation’. Consumers feel more confident that they can rely on businesses with accreditation.
“Interestingly our research also reveals that when consumers know little about a business they make assumptions based on the ‘accreditation’ status of that business and this in itself gives them peace of mind and confidence to entrust their travel book with that agency.”
Tralaggan said that the introduction of ATAS had affected the status quo.
“Our industry has come from a compensation mind-set. As a result, in ATAS’ first year we observed that some industry members struggled with the change. The most obvious struggle was to look from consumer’s perspective and understand how they book travel, the journey they go on to dream, research, plan, purchase and experience travel.”
She admitted that “the fact that some within the industry saw no value in ATAS unless tied with compensation has certainly been a challenge”.
Another challenge related to the difference in how consumers viewed travel agents, compared to the way travel agents saw their own role.
“Agents see themselves as advocates for their customers, someone who will always be there at the other end of the line, trying to get the best outcome for them.
“However, our research shows that for the consumer, the ability to help during a trip is important, but this is secondary to helping create the experience for the consumer.
“If you want to attract the consumer (after all it is all about sales) then you need to understand the consumers purchase behaviour and appeal to them.
“Consumers are highly invested in their holiday so the things that matter are; convenience, maximising time, best possible recommendations, tailor-made trips to suit their needs and freedom to enjoy the holiday that they are highly and emotionally invested in.”
The ATAS brand provided a way for travel agents to mean something to the consumer, she said.
“People are going to book travel regardless. The difference that ATAS can make is to influence who they book with and why they book.
“If we can educate the consumer and have them understand that only qualified travel agents can use the ATAS logo and that ‘those that bare the ATAS symbol are professional and reliable travel providers through whom I can book travel solutions with peace of mind’ – then we start to build positive brand equity.
“AFTA is now speaking directly to the consumers, sharing the positive, good news about the relevance, professionalism and expertise of travel agents. There are currently over 3100 travel agent locations accredited nationally and 93% of the industry has renewed their accreditation for year two.”
Edited by Peter Needham