THE travel business tells us that nobody is booking holidays at the moment. Have travel companies ever considered that the reason that people are not buying holidays is that travel agents appear uninterested in trying to sell them?

Last week, in my new occasional role as The Masked Consumer, I visited several travel agencies in Bath to seek information about a walking holiday in the Himalayas.


Agent: 'Who does walking holidays in the Himalayas?' That's a good question. Sotto voce to her colleague: 'Who does walking holidays in the Himalayas?'

Colleague: Even more sotto voce: 'A and K'

Agent: 'A and who?'

Colleague: 'Abercrombie and Kent.'

Agent: 'Oh right . . . I'll go and see if we've got their brochure.' Five-minute wait. 'No, we haven't got their brochure. I can ring them for you.'

Me: 'Thanks, I'll leave it.'

Lunn Poly

After five minutes someone acknowledges my presence.

Agent: 'Walking in the Himalayas? That's a good one . . .' She looks at the shelves for inspiration. 'Hmmm.' No inspiration there. 'I'll look in my book.' She looks in her book. 'Walking . . . That would be trekking. Ah, here we are. Bales Worldwide and Kuoni. Let's see if we have their brochures. Oh, we don't have any. I can take your name and number.'

Me: 'Thanks, I'll leave it.'

World Market Travel (independent agency)

I am dealt with immediately.

Agent: 'Bales is the company that you want.' She produces the brochure. 'There are also companies that can put together packages for you, companies like Pleasureseekers. I just organised a package like that for somebody.'

Thomas Cook

Although there are no other customers, I have to wait five minutes to be served.

Agent: 'Walking in the Himalayas? Hmmm.' She looks in the same book that the Lunn Poly person had consulted, but appears not to find listings for Bales and Kuoni. 'Hmmm . . .' Disappears downstairs for eight minutes and returns with Abercrombie & Kent brochure, but can't find any Himalayan walking holidays in it. Seconds later another, older, woman emerges from the basement with an Asia Voyages brochure featuring a Himalayan holiday.

Me: 'Who are Asia Voyages?'

Agent: 'They specialise in holidays to Asia.'

Me: 'But who are they? A good company?'

Agent: 'Oh, yes.'

No further information was volunteered.

The main conclusion from this unscientific survey is that none of the agencies - even the more clued-up independent one - wanted to encourage me to buy anything.

If I had been buying a Himalayan walking holiday for four people, I would have been spending a large sum (the Asia Voyages package, for example, costs about pounds 2,000 per person). Given that agencies earn commission of up to 15 per cent on sales, one would expect them to exhibit rather more interest in securing the potential revenue of pounds 1,200 on my booking.

'Ah, the Himalayas,' they ought to say, 'sit down and let me get you a cup of coffee while we talk over the various options.' They could find out why I wanted to go to the Himalayas (perhaps another sort of walking holiday would be more suitable for me). They could offer advice on the relative merits of different companies.

What, in fact, happens is that they give you a brochure - if they can find one - and that's your lot. (And because most agencies only recommend the operators that offer them better commission, at best they will have no more than a handful of brochures.)

And for this they expect to make pounds 1,200. It should not be surprising that the travel trade is in bad trouble.