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All hail the high street agent!

We are deep into the winter season now in the UK travel trade - and while customer sales are facing their traditional slowdown as we draw closer to 2013, it’s been a busy time for senior executives in the industry.

The Travel Convention has just been hosted by industry Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA) at a resort close to Antalya in Turkey, while other recent events have included, in Abu Dhabi, the World Routes show - owned by UBM, which also owns TTG and T3. And now World Travel Market 2012, the huge global tourism event that bestrides not just the industry in the UK, but in the rest of the world, is just days away. With TTG Media a Global Media Network Partner at WTM this year, producing the official event daily magazine on every day of the show, it’s an event we are going to be particularly close to this year.

At most of the travel industry conferences and events I have attended in 2012, I have received perhaps surprising, overwhelming sense of the strength of travel agents in UK.

With Great Britain only just emerging from the double-dip recession - and all of us praying that the ongoing financial storm doesn’t redefine economics with a third reverse - you could be forgiven that Britons would have been driven en masse to arrange their own holidays, rather than engaging a third party.

Instead the opposite is true, with ABTA’s Consumer Travel Trends Survey, released at the convention in Turkey a few weeks ago, revealing a significant jump in bookings through agents over the past three years.

This is encouraging for the sector, not just in the UK, but also in India which is at an earlier stage of the transformation that the internet has driven - and is continuing to drive - around travel sales. Those who 10 years ago were predicting the ‘death of the travel agent’ - and leafing back through the old issues of TTG, there were many - have been confounded by the ongoing resilience of the sector. It’s partly being driven by the ongoing innovations of travel agents, the pressing need for high street businesses to transform themselves and offer better value in order to compete. And across travel retail businesses, there is a heightened sense that agents are now focusing on proactively selling travel, rather than merely taking orders.

Primarily, however, the swing back towards high-street businesses is being driven by the customer. As ABTA says, customers have been revealed to value face-to-face sales and the reassuring experience of dealing with an expert, more than you would have expected in the digital age.

High street sales on their own are never going to scale enormously again for travel sellers - but as part of a true multi-platform business, such as Tui’s in the UK and which Thomas Cook is now attempting to push harder under its new chief executive, and which even many independents now offer, they will still have a tremendous role to play in selling travel, in the UK and beyond.

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