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

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


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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: 3rd Line Virtualisation, Windows & Server Engineer

£40000 - £47000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A 3rd Line Virtualisation / Sto...

Recruitment Genius: Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Service Engineer

£26000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A successful national service f...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive / Sales - OTE £25,000

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Fixed Term Contract

£17500 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We currently require an experie...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Andy Coulson: With former News of the World editor cleared of perjury charges, what will he do next?

James Cusick James Cusick
Jack Warner  

Fifa corruption: Strip Qatar of the World Cup? Not likely

Tom Peck
Syria civil war: Meet the military commander who says his soldiers will not rest until every inch of their war torn country is free of Islamist 'terrorists'

‘We won’t stop until Syria is back to normal’

Near the front lines with Islamist-controlled towns where Assad’s troops were besieged just last month, Robert Fisk meets a commander confidently preparing his soldiers for battle
The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation may undermine Hillary's chances

The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation...

... and how it may undermine Hillary's chances in 2016
12 best olive oils

Extra-virgin, cold-press, early-harvest, ultra-premium: 12 best olive oils

Choosing an olive oil is a surprising minefield. Save yourself the hassle with our handy guide
Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back