The high-street travel agent reinvented

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AT 9am yesterday, the ribbon was cut and a new travel agency on the high street of Poulton-le-Fylde, near Blackpool, was declared open.

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AT 9am yesterday, the ribbon was cut and a new travel agency on the high street of Poulton-le-Fylde, near Blackpool, was declared open.

Nothing too unusual about that, except that for years now newspapers and travel industry analysts have been predicting the death of the high-street agent at the hands of the internet and call centres. Figures from the Association of British Travel Agents suggest 1,400 agencies have closed in the past decade. But could the tide be changing?

‘The big boys are closing shops at a rate of knots, which I think is leaving a massive gap in the market,’ said Phil Nuttall, managing director of the newly opened agency, thetravelvillage. ‘New technology means that staff in an agency aren’t just taking orders from brochures, they can put together tailor-made packages. In effect our staff will be personal travel consultants on the high street.’

Nuttall’s new opening is perhaps more surprising because he has spent the past decade building up Save’n’Sail, a web and call-centre-based cruising agency, but he is far from alone in making the reverse migration from cyberspace to the high street.

Next week, Black Tomato, the upmarket tour operator which since its opening in 2005 has operated exclusively online and by phone, launches a store in Shoreditch, London, while web operator Medinland, a Mediterranean specialist, opened its first shop last month.

‘The internet is still very much a key platform for us, but for a complex itinerary – say trekking in the Amazon followed by side trips to other parts of Brazil and Argentina – it can actually take far longer to book online and by phone and email than just to sit down face to face and thrash it out,’ said Tom Marchant, director of Black Tomato.

Other firms point to an increasing divergence in fortunes between the beleaguered ‘bucket and spade’ high street agent (TUI alone plans to close 100 shops in the next two years) and the thriving tailor-made specialists.

‘We have a website but believe there is no substitute for the human touch,’ said Nikki Davies of Trailfinders, which has opened 11 new shops since 2002.

And while the package tour chains shut shops to save money, upmarket operators seem increasingly happy to invest in their shops. Select Travel last month opened a shop in South Audley Street in Mayfair, saying clients wanted ‘a luxury consulting service as a counterpoint to the internet’.

Black Tomato is going one better. Customers must make an appointment, but the shop will open till 9pm, has a bar, and every second month will be redecorated to reflect a different destination, with murals, projections and artefacts from the featured country.

‘We found it ironic that travel agents are selling the most exciting product around, but most of the shops themselves are so totally dull,’ said Marchant. ‘We wanted to get people in to talk about the destination and really get inspired.’

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