The pendulum swings back to travel agencies…

You may have already seen the advertisement for independent Scottish travel agency, Thorne Travel. Shona Thorne the owner of the travel agency said “We’re like the Virgin Airways girls, only bigger and a bit more real”.

Thorne Travel image

When I entered “Thorne Travel Agency advertisement” into Google, the result revealed how quickly this home-made ad has “gone viral” (as many commentators like to say):

Thorne Travel search

One report dubbed the video ‘so bad, it’s good’. The ad features the glamorous Thorne Travel staff, strutting along the high street in tight-fitting dresses to a pumping club soundtrack, granting holiday wishes to locals with startling special effects.

One of the reasons the ad appeals to people, despite its cringeworthiness, is that it’s real. It doesn’t pretend to be anything but a “tongue-in-cheek” take-off of the Virgin advertisements.

And in a world of manufactured authenticity thanks to content marketing, social media and “reality” television, to name a few culprits, values such as honesty and integrity stand out.


As a recent owner of a retail travel agency and online cruise business, I have some expertise in the travel category. It is one of the industries that has been affected significantly by the internet.

One interesting aspect of the industry is how the pure-play online travel brands are struggling to survive. And ironically it’s because the supposed benefit they offer – low overheads – only applies when you can acquire new online customers cheaply. And of course you then have to keep them coming back.

Anyone who works in the industry knows that the people who shop online for the cheapest quote are often the least loyal and most expensive to service. They are the modern equivalent of the old Yellow Pages shopper.

Curiously the internet is no longer a cheap option when it comes to acquiring new travel customers. After all, the cost to remain on the first page of Google is enormous, not to mention the PPC cost for generic travel terms.

FYI the travel industry is the third largest PPC revenue contributor for Google behind finance & insurance and general retail merchandise. Yet the majority of online-only travel businesses cannot survive on a diet of digital media alone – they must also use analogue media if they are to succeed. Read more here.

And because the digital marketing overheads for such online businesses are costing more and more, it is now possible to run a competitive ‘bricks n mortar’ retail travel agency, surviving only on passing traffic, smart marketing and good service.

Thorne Travel shopfront

The other reason the online travel sites are having to invest more, is that many customers who moved to online services, are now moving back to travel agents, particularly for high-cost or long-stay travel.

People will use internet booking systems for simple return flights and maybe an overnight accommodation booking. But when it comes to expensive holidays or multiple destinations with connections, transfers, visa and entry requirements, tours, flights, accommodation, etc these customers more often rely on the expertise of travel agents.

A friend just returned from a 4 week holiday in Europe. As she said, “there’s no way I could have created my holiday myself. And I’d rather give my money and the profit to a real person than some international tax-dodging travel website that’s not there for you when things go wrong.”

Travel agents offer better value than online services

The travel industry has done an appalling job of educating the market about the benefits of travel agents. Most people incorrectly believe they get cheaper deals online than with agents – this is a false belief. Travel agencies get better discounts because they have greater volume and distribution leverage than online services. They can also create packages that individuals cannot create using online services.

Travel agents are also available with a human on the end of a phone when something goes wrong. Whereas most online services require you to DIY when it comes to problem-solving – and the DIY is via a website, that rarely has a phone number to call.

Please solve your problems with our service yourself

Good service always trumps cheap price

The Thorne Travel ad also works because it focuses on the staff and the service they give. It doesn’t flog holiday packages. David Ogilvy said “all great advertising has charm” and in a clunky way this one does too.

That’s not to say an online site that disposes of distressed space in hotels, cruises or flights is not a good service. There will always be an online market for last minute bookings and a whole range of normal travel services.

But the market will select its own level regarding use of travel agents and the use of online travel services. Travel agents are not going to disappear soon. But they need to demonstrate their consumer proposition more effectively if they are to compete more successfully.

see saw
The market will set its own level between real & virtual travel services

I offered my friends a “mates rates” deal with their travel bookings, but very few used my agency. Most were convinced they could get a better deal doing all the work themselves online. Either that or I have less mates than I thought?

Personally, I’d rather pay an expert to book my holidays. I’m happy to book flights and accommodation for simple trips, but when it comes to investing seriously in my relaxation, I’ll use an agent every time. It also creates business in my local community.

Flight Centre is an example of why travel agents will survive. It is one of the most successful travel agency brands in the world, with year-on-year global growth and continued expansion of new retail stores, as well as online business.

flight centre

One of the main reasons it is successful is the personal service their travel agents provide face-to-face with customers. And the staff are one of their best assets, as they tell their friends and colleagues about working at Flight Centre and the deals they can get them.

The other reason for their success is the way they use their database of customers. They keep in touch, make relevant offers via mail, email and phone, test and analyse results – “how old-fashioned” I hear you say?

Oops that reminds me – Christmas/Summer holidays are coming. Better call my travel agent before it’s too late…

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