Holidays At Home: Personal holiday advisers

It may be the age of the internet, but one tour operator is offering to help you choose where to take a break by sending its new breed of advisers round to your house. Mark MacKenzie reports
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The Independent Travel

Last week saw the launch of a new travel service billed as the latest addition to the ever-increasing number of lifestyle counsellors. If you think the personal trainer, nutritionist or yoga teacher is old hat, then it's time you were introduced to the "personal holiday adviser", a creation designed to take the hard work (yes, really) out of finding your perfect holiday.

Interestingly, the scheme is not the brainchild of some high-end luxury operator but of Going Places, the well-known high-street retailer that is part of the MyTravel group. With a promise to sell any product on the high street, rather than those favoured by MyTravel, there will initially be just six personal holiday advisers (PHAs), participating in what Going Places' managing director, Tim Clancy, forsees as "a very short trial period". If successful, the scheme will be rolled out nationwide, with, according to Clancy, "several hundred" PHAs visiting homes or offices up and down the country.

The idea of a personal travel agent organising bespoke trips is hardly new. The company Travel Counsellors, for example, was founded in 1994 and now has 540 advisers around the country. And in the same week that Going Places launched its scheme, the dedicated website travelanswers.co.uk also went live. What distinguishes the Going Places initiative is that it will sell holidays as part of a hybrid business model, adding PHAs to the company's existing channels of online reservations and high-street outlets.

"Having conducted research among our customers we found that while an increasing number research holidays on the internet, many also want the reassurance that booking face-to-face offers," explains Clancy. "A lot of people who come into our stores don't have the time to sit and run through numerous holidays so [using PHAs] we can go away, do the research on their behalf and come back with a range of options."

The new service will be provided free of charge, so is there a catch? Clancy says not, emphasising that PHAs will "do more than just trawl the web", and foresees the service being of benefit to busy - rather than plain lazy - customers. "Of course it will appeal to those in high-powered jobs," he says, "but also, we hope, to working mums. Our PHAs will sell breaks across a wide range of prices."

What might buy the scheme some time to prove itself is the fact that last November, Going Places closed 110 of its high-street stores and with the new PHAs working on a commission-only basis, they will operate at little or no expense to the company. The commission-only nature of a PHA may set alarm bells ringing, particularly among those prospective clients who have had reason to regret inviting a salesperson across their threshold. Clancy insists customers "won't get the hard sell".

Yet given the current boom in internet booking, isn't it an incongruous time to launch a bespoke booking service? Not if you consider the increasingly diverse nature of the travel sales market, says Chris Lake of e-consultancy, an organisation that, among other things, helps companies integrate their online presence into their overall sales strategy. "MyTravel are one company that has invested a lot in website analysis," says Lake, "monitoring who's visiting their sites and what they're doing when they get there. Between 2004 and 2005, the company's online sales shot up by about 70 or 80 per cent." PHAs might work as part of a "multi-channel approach", adds Lake, pointing out a basic rule of market forces that every salesman knows: "Not all consumers want the same thing."

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