Travel Pods: The beginning of the end for the brochure?

First Choice is launching the Travel Pod, a new way to sell holidays. Mark Mackenzie reports

Waiting for the season's new holiday brochures to land on high-street shelves used to be the travel industry's equivalent of the build up to Christmas. Their arrival was a cause for genuine excitement and then, having got your hands on one, you'd leaf expectantly through its pages until some suitably palm-tree-festooned beach caught your eye.

But the days of the travel brochure as we know it might well be numbered. This month sees the country's first "travel pods" go on trial around the country. They are the brainchild of high street retailer First Choice. Demonstration pods will appear in six of the company's supermarket concessions, four in Asda stores in Sheffield, Basildon, Milton Keynes and Manchester, and an additional two in First Choice "Travel Centres" at Sainsbury's stores in Torquay and Liverpool. Occupying less than half the area of a standard concession, each will be entirely brochure free, using internet access and colour printers to give customers a streamlined hard copy of their travel options.

"The idea arose because supermarkets like the rent that concessions provide but don't like giving up the space shelves that brochures need," explains Cheryl Powell, managing director of First Choice Retail. Mrs Powell, who came up with the concept after visiting a nail bar in her local shopping centre, believes that despite their compact nature, turnover from the pods will be only about 20 per cent less than that from an average high street outlet. And there are other benefits. "The travel industry faces a huge problem with brochure wastage," says Mrs Powell. "With tons of brochures dumped every year, it's a genuine environmental issue."

If you are in need of a brochure fix and you can't make it to the shop, brochure hotlines are only ever a few premium-rate digits away. So while we may be unlikely to see the end of printed brochures just yet, some major players are nevertheless revising their marketing strategies for a time when the digital formats could render brochures obsolete.

British Airways Holidays, for example, has developed a range of destination-specific brochures that contain no prices, instead referring customers to dedicated online microsites that run "live pricing", regularly updating flight and package costs.

"A problem with traditional hotel-led brochures is that the prices are out of date almost as soon as they hit the shelves," says BA's Tracy Long. Consequently, BA is now shifting towards "lifestyle brochures", A5-size booklets offering aspirational content on a destination's various attractions. "On the accompanying microsite for each destination," says Ms Long, "prices are continually revised to reflect market forces, such as changes in exchange rates. If people still want to talk to a human being we also provide a call-centre number."

One newspaper report last week suggested that another likely victim of changes in marketing fashions would be the old-fashioned travel agent's shopwindow. Those familiar cards used to lure punters offer bargains that are, all too often, annoyingly finite, and those that mislead customers over prices can result in a hefty fine from Trading Standards.

But should the holiday brochure eventually retire to a place in the sun once and for all, would we miss those glossy pages, with seductively shot wares enticing us to spend just that bit more than we can afford? Not if the internet has anything to do with it.

"The technology behind recreating entire brochures online is relatively simple" says Linus Gregoriadis, an analyst with e-consultancy, a web publishing company. "Downloading a brochure in digital format takes just a few seconds and we're also seeing the spread of what's known as rich media, more sophisticated, dynamic content.

"The old banner-style ads that were quite static, for example, are being replaced by moving images. Like many other sectors, travel websites are exploiting this technology and the prevalence of broadband means most people can download video footage of a destination quite easily."