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

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

Share

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

React Now

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

Recruitment Genius: HGV Fitter - Technician

£16 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity for someone ...

Recruitment Genius: Automotive Service Advisor - Franchised Main Dealer

£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This successful, family owned m...

Ashdown Group: Account Payable Assistant - SW London

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Account Payable Assistant - SW Londo...

Recruitment Genius: Bathroom Showroom Customer Service / Sales Assistant

£14560 - £17680 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Even though their premises have...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

If I were Prime Mininster: I would legislate for abortion on demand and abolish VAT on sanitary products

Caroline Criado-Perez
 

Election catch-up: Just what the election needs – another superficially popular but foolish policy

John Rentoul
Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence