How the package holiday is being personalised
Comparison sites such as Kayak and Skyscanner have enabled people to find the best deals for their own holidays, contributing to the decline of the high street travel agent. But with ‘information overload’ a common source of stress, how is the package trip being adapted for demanding travellers?
Consumer Research and Consultancy agency, Canvas8, explore what this means for the travel market and the opportunities emerging from these trends.
Highlights and Data
- The researching and booking process for holidays has largely shifted online as people seek greater control over each aspect of their trip
- However, sorting through the abundance of information online is time-consuming and can be stressful
- The value in travel agents today is that they can undertake this process for clients, finding the best-suited destinations and prices
- Travellers are increasingly looking for unique experiences, explaining the popularity of ‘mystery trips’
- There’s a growing desire for trips that are tailored to the individual and service that’s available any time of the day
- The number of full-time travel agents in the US fell from 124,000 in 2000 to 74,000 in 2014 (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2016)
- 27% of Britons say that the planning, booking and preparation of a holiday is stressful (Kayak, 2013)
- 68% of global consumers exclusively book their holidays online (MarkMonitor, 2016)
- 22% of 25- to 34-year-olds in the UK plan and book their holidays within three weeks of their departure date (Thomas Cook, 2017)
- 67% of American vacationers have been stressed due to ‘information overload’, being paralysed by choice when planning a break (Wyndham Vacation Rentals, 2017)
Like so many things, the way that people book holidays has been greatly impacted by the internet and rapidly changing technology. In the not-so-distant past, getting a package holiday from a travel agent was very much the norm. Today, however, it’s commonplace to book a trip using websites such as Kayak, Skyscanner and Expedia. Why bother visiting an agent when you can compare and book everything yourself with just a few clicks?
The convenience afforded by these tools partly explains why the number of full-time travel agents in the US fell from 124,000 in 2000 to 74,000 in 2014.  But with so many trips to choose from, picking the perfect getaway can be laborious; 27% of Britons say that the planning, booking and preparation of a holiday is a source of great stress, and 89% Americans are ‘plagued by the amount of time and effort required’ for planning a family trip. 
Even though travel agents may seem old-fashioned, they can help solve some of these problems, with research from the American Society of Travel Agents finding that they save clients an average of $452 per trip.  “There is space in the market,” says Eric Johnson, director of business development at start-up travel company Pack Up + Go. “Because as fun as travelling is, the planning and coordination of it can be a huge headache. Often people just want to get away – they don't care about where they’re going and they don’t want to have to put it all together.”  Travel agents and package holidays are by no means dead, but how are they being adapted to suit the demands of the contemporary traveller?
Booking your own way
Just as people don’t need to visit a bank to manage their account or hit the high street to shop, the internet has made it so there’s no need to see a travel agent for a package holiday. In fact, a survey conducted in 2016 revealed that 68% of global consumers exclusively book their holidays online.  Research from Thomas Cook, meanwhile, has found that the majority of Britons research trips on smart devices, with 68% of 18- to 24-year-olds using their smartphones. Additionally, mobile searches on the travel company’s site increased 113% between 2014 and 2017.  “Online travel agents have made it a lot easier for clients to search for the best prices, so the value of [traditional] agents has gone down drastically,” says Jose Pablo Toscano, founder of travel start-up Jubel. 
Those travel agents that have survived are having to adapt to the fact that, with the internet, people expect regular service 24/7. “Everything is available to [the clients] at their fingertips, whether it's 1am or 6am – they can go on their computer and research or book anything at any time,” says Kerl Commock, an agent at California-based Balboa Travel.  Indeed, Thomas Cook’s study found that 22% of 25- to 34-year-olds plan and book their trips within three weeks of their departure date, predominantly doing so online.  “The internet really has been a big factor in the industry,” says Commock. “Balboa is [now] a 24-hour operation; we have our regular business hours, but our after-hours agents are there to assist in case of emergencies. That makes us accessible to both our domestic clients and clients overseas.” 
Even though some travel agents are adapting, they are no longer the gatekeepers of people’s holidays as all the options imaginable are available at our fingertips, says Johnson; “Many people like to take total control of their vacations and save every dollar they can, and when that’s the case, a traditional travel agent wouldn’t make sense.”  Yet there remain some problems for would-be travellers. The more deals and options there are out there, the more time it takes to determine the best deal – 67% of American vacationers say they have become stressed due to ‘information overload’, paralysed by the choices when researching and planning a break. 
“Customers reportedly find organising their trips more stressful than ever,” says Toscano. “According to my stats, it takes over 30 hours [to organise a trip] and this will only get worse as more information gets added online, so the travel agent’s future value will be to minimise that time cost. People want help when planning these complicated experiences but they are not willing to compromise with the inflexibility and lack of personalisation of packaged holidays/group travel.” 
The issue of choice paralysis is perhaps why, according to Thomas Cook, people are still using in-store agents in surprising numbers. Nearly 60% of Britons aged 25-44 book offline and often go for all-inclusive holidays for value, with 53% citing hotel-based activities as a key booking factor. Meanwhile, 69% of over-55s book in-store with a travel agent, making them the most likely of all age groups to use the high street. 
Though comparison websites seem like liberating tools, they can make holiday booking much more daunting and time-consuming. “It takes an average of 38 website visits to research and book a trip,” Toscano adds. “The only existing solution today is to hire travel agencies to personalise your trip, but they are expensive as they mostly target luxury clientele, and outdated as their technology and brands are not adapted to Millennials. For people who cannot afford luxury agents, the only option is to book through a group travel agent. However, these agencies are inflexible and not personalised, which is a compromise most people are not willing to make.” 
Futuristic travel agents
While traditional agents often work with clients to find a location and hotel, some companies organise the entire break for customers in what’s known as a ‘mystery trip’.  Jubel, for example, builds a surprise holiday according to each customer’s interests and budget. The start-up then sends a series of envelopes that tell them where to go to commence their trip, where they’ll be staying, and what they’ll be doing. 
“The goal was to make adventure travel more exciting because I felt that people wanted a better experience than the typical cookie-cutter holiday packages,” explains Toscano. “With that idea, we began our ‘Destination Unknown’ journeys where we personalise trips to incredible destinations but our clients don’t know where they are going until they arrive at the airport. After running the surprise experiences for a while, we also learnt that there was a huge need for personalised services in general – adventure travel requires a lot more research and planning than the traditional holiday, but the only current solution is luxury agents – so we are also working towards satisfying that need for people at any price point.” 
Pack Up + Go, which plans mystery weekend breaks around the US, started in January 2016 and booked 600 trips in its first year. In the first eight months of 2017, that number reached 1,500, highlighting the growing interest in letting agents handle everything. “It’s very appealing for people to be able to say, ‘Here’s what I like to do, create a vacation for me’, and not have to worry about anything except enjoying their trip,” says Johnson. [5
How many times in your life will you be able to show up to an airport without knowing where you’re going, open an envelope, and head out on a vacation? People love the spontaneity of it allEric Johnson, director of business development at Pack Up + Go
For start-ups like Pack Up + Go, it’s vital to keep up with customers who want to research their holiday at any hour of the day. “We provide excellent customer service 24/7,” says Johnson, adding that the company provides curated recommendations for each traveller and makes the whole process as worry-free as possible. “Most importantly, however, it’s fun! How many times in your life will you be able to show up to an airport without knowing where you’re going, open an envelope, and head out on a vacation? People love the spontaneity of it all.” 
Aiming to ‘turn globetrotters into travel agents’, TRVL lets users post their past trips on to the website and earn a commission on every person that re-books their trip. When customers post their trips on the platform, they can earn up to 10% on every subsequent booking. “Travellers can monetise their knowledge and expertise or shop around for personalised travel advice from their peers,” says founder Jochem Wijnands. “Not only do we democratise travel booking and put travellers in the driver’s seat, we’re also financially empowering them.” In Wijnands’ view, the future of travel will see “the knowledge of an individual surpassed by the knowledge of the crowd... We believe TRVL will change the way millions of people book their trips.” 
While these innovative companies show how holiday booking has a bold future ahead, they do not mean that regular travel agents are done for. Even Dara Khosrowshahi, the former CEO of Expedia, has said that the travel industry will likely move back to the model of customers visiting an agent, albeit online.  “There will always be people out there who will pay for the convenience of have things planned and put together for them. It’s the same reason that event planners and personal assistants will always exist,” says Johnson.  While digital booking has created more possibilities for customers, a fairly large niche remains for agents to save time and stress.
Although young people can check holidays online at any time, 64% of 18- to 24-year-olds surveyed by Thomas Cook said they’d used a travel agent before.  Johnson points to how useful an agent can be in cases where a flight is cancelled, or when the logistics are complicated. “There is something to be said for passing that headache off to somebody else. So, for those who have the resources for a travel agent and see that value, then we think traditional travel agents are still very useful.” 
There will always be people out there who'll pay for the convenience to have things planned and put together for them. It’s the reason that event planners and personal assistants will always existEric Johnson, director of business development at Pack Up + Go
“The good thing with having a travel agent is our knowledge. Most of us have been in this industry for a very long time, so we know some of the ins and outs of travel,” says Commock. “Sometimes you're looking at the lowest fare, but that might not be the best value… We can advise them that for a little bit more, you can have tickets that you can change for a nominal fee, or provide you with a seat assignment, or change the date of departure.” 
Even when a customer is already travelling, a travel agent can alleviate stress when things go wrong. “I have clients calling from the taxi: ‘I'm going to miss my flight, I don't think I'm going to make it! What can you do?’ I can try to get them on another flight in an hour. Service – that's what the travel agency provides that makes us viable today,” Commock adds. “We have that added value that we're going to help them beyond that ticket, if there's an issue or weather delay. You're not just purchasing a ticket – you're purchasing our services.” 
Insights and opportunities
The way we arrange holidays has changed dramatically due to digital technology, reducing the dependence on package holidays booked with a traditional travel agent. Yet while Toscano believes that package holidays will continue to decline in popularity, that doesn’t mean agents will be obsolete, but that their raison d’etre will evolve. “What clients want now is personalisation. They want someone who can filter out all the clutter from the internet, make sense out of all the options, and give them a shortlist of timely suggestions that match the client’s preferences,” he says, noting that there are various ways traditional agents can adapt to the new reality. “I think they can either specialise in a certain region and become ‘destination experts’ with key insider perks/contacts, or they can... cater to experiential travel by solving any of its many rising problems.” 
Pack Up + Go helps people experience something that’s unique and personalised – a key element of the modern ‘package holiday’. “None of what we do is automated or computerised in any way. All decisions, bookings, recommendations come from our small but dedicated team,” says Johnson. “We are constantly available to our travellers. They can call us at any time if there is an issue or if they have a question. We know from the feedback we’ve received that this one aspect of Pack Up + Go that people enjoyed the most.” 
Old-school travel agents, by contrast, may have to hone in on niches to succeed, according to Wijnands. “In many cases, a travel agent doesn’t add enough value and then the service doesn’t warrant the extra costs and the trouble of the process of finding the right agent and contacting that agent,” he explains. “We’re living in different times now where peer reviews are more important and on-demand and bespoke advice is expected.”  The excess of travel information online means that there is still a role for agents in the booking process, but with expectations for the package holiday increasing, it’s clear that these companies need to offer a little extra, whether that’s in the form of round-the-clock service, tailored trips or insider info.
Darren Loucaides is a travel writer and music critic for the BBC. He’s lived and travelled in Italy, the Middle East and Latin America, and has become obsessed with the parallels between cultural and political trends.
This is a Canvas8 article, you can view it here.
'Who uses a travel agent in this day and age?'The Atlantic
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'89 percent of Americans are stressed out over planning family vacations'
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'Report: 68 percent of consumers exclusively book their travel plans online'
'Thomas Cook Holiday Report 2017'
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'Destination unknown: the top-secret holidays for people who hate planning'The Telegraph
'This travel site sends you to a mystery destination anywhere in the world'
'Expedia at 20: Execs see new places to go and ways to grow'The Seattle Times