Ten years ago, operations manager Gary Baker wanted to book a trip that would cover his entire bucket list of more than 30 countries. The complex schedule would take in Vietnam, Cambodia, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand and Indonesia, to name a few, navigating the most breath-taking historic wonders, famous beaches and popular traveller routes on the world map.
As the ancient proverb goes, ‘a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step’. So, Gary’s first port of call was his local travel agency, where he received some friendly advice: Buy a map of the world and plot the top 10 countries you want to visit, while always moving in an easterly direction.
Heeding the advice, he tailored his itinerary, booked the recommended tickets and embarked on the life-changing journey.
Last year, with a milestone birthday on the horizon and friends across the globe eager to share the celebrations, he decided to return to his favourite places – this time without the help of a travel agent.
‘When I took my first world trip, I had no idea about booking multi-destination tickets or the Star Alliance. I didn’t know you could fly into one city in a country and fly out of another and I wanted an easy booking process that would provide some advice, while allowing me to find my own way between different destinations.
‘My first trip was all about exploration and it turned into three years on the road, eventually bringing me to live in Dubai. I don’t think any travel agent can plan that for you! My second trip was all about re-visiting people and places that are close to my heart but who I hadn’t seen in years. With the experience from my first trip there was no need to use an agent.’
His second trip took in five countries and covered more than 46,000km. He took 13 flights with a total travel time of 74 hours over eight weeks, meeting friends in every country and city. The whole trip was planned, organised and scheduled single-handedly.
He recalls: ‘These days, with comparison sites, apps and individual websites, it was not only easy to book but very easy to quickly get a feel if something was about right, good value or clearly too good to be true. These days you can view the best flight timings to suit, and even work around, hotel check-in times and I even booked internal flights, activities, bus tickets and car hire, with most giving a degree of flexibility as they know things change. It was so much easier and often booking direct with an airline or hotel, once you have done some research, makes changes far less stressful.’
For those in the industry, today’s buzz term is ‘experiential travel’ and, as with most things today it’s a trend spearheaded by Millennials. Based on the principles of independent exploration, the trend is driving demand for more nomadic experiences than the traditional holiday previously allowed for.
These young and ambitious travellers are empowered by the internet and book direct with their preferred airlines and hotels, taking most of their inspiration from social media. In research published earlier this year, YouGov concluded that more than 70 per cent of travellers have based a trip on wanderlust inspired by Facebook or Instagram.
Khaled Al Zaabi takes an average five trips a year, revisiting his favourite places and discovering new ones, with adventure and exploration at the heart of every itinerary. Over the last year he has visited New York, Colorado, Seattle, Prague, Budapest and Tanzania, yet he found his favourite destination through little more than serendipity.
He says: ‘My favourite place is Zermatt in Switzerland and I didn’t find that through a travel magazine, but a friend’s Facebook post. I saw the post then looked it up and did my research. Once I had decided I definitely had to see it for myself I booked a flight and hotel, arrived and figured it out.’
Khaled has revisited for ski season every year since, staying at the same local, independently owned hotel that he found on Booking.com three years ago. He has built such a strong relationship with the owners he is now their tour guide when they visit Dubai.
‘I doubt I would have found this hotel if I booked with an agency. I prefer the mom-and-pop hotels with a personal touch, and that’s the same for every trip I take when I don’t stay with friends. The small local businesses really care for their guests because their business depends on repeat bookings, rather than the strength of a brand name.’
Many travellers may strive for a digital detox once on the road, but more and more are heavily dependent on the internet in the booking and planning phases.
Online bookings in the region saw a compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) of 18 per cent year on year between 2010 and 2014, according to travel market research firm PhocusWright. Through the sustained popularity of online booking and review sites, and the rise in mobile booking apps, it is widely estimated 53 per cent of all trips are now booked online.
So, with the internet at our fingertips, why do people still use travel agents? A quick Google of this very question reveals many people have mused the same thing. Despite this, the profession still draws crowds of new recruits every year, with this region boasting the highest number of travel agents per capita in the world.
Ifedayo Andrew-Ogunbayo, managing director and CEO of Nigeria-based Fidol Trips, argues that travel agents are specialists in their fields, offering a level of service unmatched by the online competition. With eight years first-hand industry experience under her belt, she has witnessed the entire cycle as travellers have tried and tested the DIY websites, but now return to the traditional agent.
She says: ‘Booking on your own presents so many challenges. Changing tickets is difficult, booking multiple destinations and multiple airports within the same country is difficult. You don’t have the round-the-clock support you would get from a travel agent and if something goes wrong with your hotel or flight while you are travelling, you don’t have an agent on the end of the phone who can fix things for you. With an agent, the customer service begins with the booking and lasts until you arrive back home at the end of the trip.’
One of the greatest hesitations from travellers is the price, with the understanding that such a high level of customer service cannot come without additional costs.
Yasmeen Al Rawi, executive manager of Alyas Travel and Tourism Company, reveals: ‘As agents, we have access to exclusive access to trade-only prices and itineraries that travellers cannot get if they book their own trip.’
Despite a notable shift towards DIY bookings, Yasmeen says more travellers are now choosing to use the specialist services of an agent, instead of investing hours of their own time on review and price comparison sites.
She explains: ‘Over the last few years I have noticed that more people are choosing to use a travel agent for their holiday bookings. The fares you see advertised online may seem cheaper, but often the tickets are restricted and the penalties to make changes can be very high. When you book through a travel agent it is easier to make changes and often there are no restrictions on the tickets because of the exclusive deals we have with airlines, airline alliances and hotels.’
It’s a trend that is particularly strong with families and those travelling for a special occasion, such as a honeymoon, birthday or anniversary.
Gary adds: ‘The friends who joined me in Las Vegas this year used a travel agent for the whole group for that leg of the trip. That agent has booked all their family holidays for a number of years and they trust her completely. They have such a strong relationship with her they simply provide the destination and dates and she comes back with an itinerary of direct and in-direct flight options, family friendly hotels and attractions.
‘As well as advising on what you should include in the trip, she advises on where not to go. For example, places that aren’t suitable for families, or places other travellers maybe didn’t enjoy as much,’ he continues.
With travel agents now earning less commission from airline ticket sales than a decade ago, it is this value-added advice on hotels and destinations that sets the business model apart.
Ifedayo agrees: ‘I think some years back people wanted to try the DIY bookings because it’s exciting to be your own travel agent, but now they are coming back to the professionals. The role of a travel agent cannot be over-emphasised. You cannot get the best deals on your own, no matter what the websites promise.’
With outbound travel from the MENA region on track to reach values of Dh403b by 2025, the market is certainly large enough to support agents, agencies and online reservation systems.
However, the dramatic empowerment of travellers to be their own agent doesn’t suit everybody. Thanks to the way booking engines and web addresses work, the internet still poses many challenges, especially for older travellers who do not speak English or may not be tech-savvy.
Benjo Van Laarhoven, CEO of online business advisory Prizm, says: ‘The high proportion of expatriate and Millennial residents in the region, coupled with generous holiday allowances and increased connectivity with major and emerging global destinations, drives unprecedented demand for travel.
‘Many hotels and airlines have created a customer experience online that fails to meet the same levels of client care as the offline booking experience. This offers huge potential for travel agencies but those businesses need to meet their younger clients online – on social media and through websites – in order to add value to these offline services.’
The days of aspirational TV adverts for exotic travel destinations may be firmly in the past, but thanks to the hectic and demanding professional lives that fund such trips, the skill of a travel agent who can take care of the whole booking process, is once again an attractive proposition.
Add to this the ability to present better value packages than the consumer can find from their living room, and it’s clear the demand for face-to-face, client-focused services will not end anytime soon.
That said, with virtual reality now tipped as the next big travel trend, the future could see the role of the agent changing once again, as the research and booking process is transformed by real-time virtual experiences. Considering the rapid pace of change observed over the previous decade, the travel agent of the future is more likely to meet clients at home with a pair of VR goggles than seated behind an office desk.