Simon Calder: So who needs a travel agent these days?

'Every time someone arranges their own trip, agents have one less reason for existence'

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If anyone ought to be able to organise a jolly industry outing to somewhere sunny and foreign, it should be the travel business.

If anyone ought to be able to organise a jolly industry outing to somewhere sunny and foreign, it should be the travel business. But while the weather here in Lisbon is fine and warm, among the high and mighty of the UK's travel agents the gloom is almost tangible.

The good news is that British travellers are still going on holiday; the bad, that the majority of them booked before 11 September. The only way to fill up the rest of the seats on packages to the sun at present is to cut prices to unsustainable levels. Bookings for next summer are down 50 per cent on this point a year ago. Few of the people whose business is pleasure are looking happy.

The Association of British Travel Agents' (Abta) convention handbook is a sad document, a kind of who-was-who of the UK travel industry. It was printed a month ago; many of the names listed as attending, including some of the highest profile figures in the business, are a long way from Lisbon, currently looking for work following some fierce job cuts made across the travel industry. Others are still in business but are staying away, having judged that their time would be more valuably spent trying to persuade Saturday shoppers to book a holiday.

They will be missing today's opening session at this year's Abta convention, entitled "The Changing Consumer". A better title would be "The future of the traditional travel company – does it have one?" That is the question at the core of an industry that has been battered more than most since the terrorist attacks on America.

So while the usual alcohol-fuelled events are taking place – the Abta nightclub sponsored by those funsters at Birmingham Airport and Holiday Autos, and a welcome party that the Portuguese are paying for – the atmosphere is more akin to a wake than a celebration. That, at least, is my sounding of the people who have made it as far as the convention centre.

Several of the senior figures due to speak at a press conference yesterday afternoon were taken not to the official Congress Centre, but to the Expo '98 site – the closest Lisbon gets to the Millennium Dome, though not an icon of national shame. One reason for the detour is that the Abta convention handbook contains no map, which is an apt metaphor for the mainstream travel industry: no clear idea of where it is heading. Forecasts from the Centre for Economics and Business Research, released yesterday in Lisbon, suggest that one in 20 of us will opt not to take a foreign holiday next year as a result of the attacks on America and the aftermath. But as Abta's president, Stephen Bath, said yesterday: "It's anybody's guess when confidence will return. We'll be happy if it's only 5 per cent down next summer."

The underlying problem, though, is not about restoring confidence. The British holidaymaker has proved to be resilient in the face of international crises. Time and again, the package tourist has shown he or she is prepared to fly to some of the more precarious parts of the world so long as the price of the holiday is right and the beer is cheap. Our collective grasp of geography and global politics is far from perfect, which is why the Canary Islands are enjoying something of a package holiday bonanza, while 100 miles across on the African mainland, Morocco is virtually a tourist-free zone. We are still travelling. But increasingly many of us fancy ourselves as amateur travel agents, and are finding out in the process that many travel agents are amateurs.

In the seven weeks since the attack on America, the main story about air travel has been that the traditional airlines have been laying off staff and cutting flights, with one or two going bust altogether, while the no-frills airlines are enjoying increased passengers, albeit at decreased prices. Stelios Haji-Iaonnou of easyJet gets a clear run on breakfast TV, while Michael O'Leary of Ryanair appears on the Today programme. Both sing from the hymn sheet of cheap fares and ditching travel agents, while the package holiday companies stay silent.

For half a lifetime, the mainstream industry has been churning out fly-and-flop holidays in the Med. We, the public, have trouped obediently down to a High Street travel agency to order our fortnights in the sun, flying on the days the holiday company chose for exactly 14 nights. Gradually, though, we are discovering that a trip abroad can be two, nine or 30 days long, and that by assembling the ingredients ourselves, quite often we can get better value and have a happier holiday.

The internet makes travel agents of us all. Every time someone decides to arrange their own trip using the world wide web, agents have one less justification for their existence. Those who survive will need to demonstrate they add value to the traveller – but for short, simple trips, like mine to Lisbon for Abta, you don't need anything other than a PC or a phone.

The Abta president is due to end the convention with an enthusiastic plug for the 2002 get-together. But the planned location is Cairo, and plenty of agents have expressed concern about the wisdom of holding the event in such a politically sensitive location. Tonight a large number of sorrows will be drowned at the Docks Club, sponsored by Liverpool Airport. A tribute band to the Beatles, the Blue Meanies, will be on stage performing the kind of oldies that Abta folk love – reminding them of the days when there was still something magical about the all-too-often mysterious tours that the travel industry sold us.

Simon.Calder@Independent.co.uk

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