Two of the country's biggest operators yesterday announced heavy cuts in the number of their travel reps. Thomson said it would be getting rid of 300, more than a fifth, replacing them by 100 "super-reps", and Cosmos said that 150 people, a third of overseas staff, would go.
Instead, the companies will offer 24-hour helplines with details of trips and local information with key reps on hand when needed. The cuts will be in the traditionally popular destinations such as Spain. In more exotic locations such as Egypt and Croatia, full-time reps will remain.
"To a degree, people are more sophisticated and confident," said Rachel O'Reilly of Thomson Holidays. "A lot of holidaymakers have been time and time again. People are used to getting information from the phone line. They want something more instant than saying, `Your rep will be here at two o'clock'. People don't need their hand held much these days."
Hugh Morgan, who first worked as a travel rep on the Costa Brava 38 years ago, also put the change down to the increasing sophistication of the travel market and destinations.
"In those days, you were mainly employed to keep the driver awake during the 15-hour trip from Perpignan airport," said Mr Morgan, now overseas purchasing and operations director with Cosmos. "We used to turn up and the hotels would not be finished. In 35 years the business has changed dramatically." Hotel receptionists and local agents can now provide much of the information and help once available only rom the reps, he added.
With more people travelling independently and able to research any destination on the internet, Mr Morgan said there was a need to rethink services. It was a natural progression and more reps could be cut if this proved successful.
Cosmos said it would not be sacking any staff but merely not replacing them next season with the benefit of saving costly recruitment. Ms O'Reilly added: "There is no doubt the independent travel sector is growing. But millions still book package holidays each year. We are merely modernising and updating the package holiday." But Thomson's rival First Choice disagreed, saying less well-off families and budget travellers still needed the most help from reps. "We see the rep's job as being particularly important," a spokeswoman said. "They are not just there for the welcome meetings and to tell people about excursions but to help them should anything go wrong. If people don't have a rep out there a lot of the time they don't know where to turn."
Louise Prior, of Travel Trade Gazette, said: "Tour operators are having to cut costs and people don't need as much help as they once did. This is not the death of the travel rep. They are getting a bit of a twisting rather than being killed off."