The annual convention run by Abta – The Travel Association took place in Dubrovnik last week, and coincided with a deluge of statistics. One is particularly interesting: 29 per cent of those aged 16 to 24 claim to have bought a holiday using a mobile phone. The figure looks surprising: three out of 10 young people are confident enough about committing hundreds of pounds on a holiday with nothing more than a few keystrokes on a smartphone.
Given that, the month's big industry story looks all the more puzzling. A leading independent travel agent from the north-east of England has bought the biggest chain of agencies in the south. Hays Travel has bought the family firm, Bath Travel, for an undisclosed sum. But why, given a shrinking market, would anyone contemplate expanding? That was my first question when I met Stephen Bath (SB), joint managing director, until this month, of Bath Travel, and John Hays (JH), the buyer.
JH: For at least a decade people have been predicting the death of the high-street travel agent. However, there will always be a place for personal service. Over the past year, we've seen a real, noticeable upswing in our high-street agencies as has Bath Travel. People want the reassurance of knowing that if anything goes wrong, they've got someone to come back to.
SB: If you've got £3,000 and you spend it on the internet and you save £50 and you press the “send” button and that's it. Whereas if you walk into a travel agency, where you're known and recognised, you'll be told: “You are a customer of ours, nothing's too much trouble.” Also, if you're abroad and you lose your passport or your wife breaks her leg, you have an agent at home who will do anything to help you out.
JH: During Hurricane Sandy in New York last year, we had clients in the Waldorf Astoria. We paid for their room, food and drinks, until the storm abated and they could get a flight home – and we paid for the flight home.
SB: When you book on the internet and you're about to send your money to Ryanair, there's never a button which says: “Before you press this button just check with easyJet because they may fly the same route at half the price.”
JH: I'm a big fan of Thomson and of Thomas Cook, but clients are realising that if they go into a Thomson shop, they're probably going to get a Thomson holiday. If they come in to an independent travel agent, then if Thomson are the best, we'll recommend Thomson, but if someone else is better, then we'll recommend that.
SC: People working at Bath Travel, and customers, want to know: how are things going to change?
JH: We certainly intend to retain the brand, retain all of the staff, and maybe even enhance it. Hopefully, clients won't see an outward difference.
SB: John runs the business like my father used to run his. It's just called being kind to the staff.