Why we need more travel agents – not less, Mr O’Leary

It’s been a rollercoaster few weeks in the travel industry with the collapse of Thomas Cook. Now, as family-run independent Hays Travel boldly steps in to rescue 550 of the travel agency shops, there is hope on the horizon for hundreds who have lost jobs.

However, when things first looked bad for Thomas Cook, up piped the outspoken Ryanair boss, Michael O’Leary. After the travel company’s collapse, he is reported in this Daily Mail article as saying, ‘The whole tour operator model is finished… (The market) is screwed, it’s over.’

I couldn’t disagree with Mr O’Leary more.

First, as ABTA Chief Executive Mark Tanzer stated during the association’s recent conference in Tokyo, the disintegration of Thomas Cook was ‘more a failure of corporate finance than a failure of travel’. He also said, ‘Thomas Cook paid £1.2bn in finance charges over the past six years, plus goodness knows how much in advisory fees to the City… Those were profits from its holiday business, money that in a more balanced financial model would have been available to invest and develop the business.’

Second, I think we need travel agents more than ever. OK, it’s fair to say that the Thomas Cook model didn’t modernise effectively. But for many people the struggle of having to book everything ourselves is becoming increasingly tiresome. Wouldn’t going to a reputable agent with sound knowledge make the job of choosing flights, hotels, and even local activities a bit easier?

Book your own trip and you’re rarely protected

The other huge advantage of using a properly certified travel agent is that your trip is so much safer. As I stated in a recent blog about friends wanting me to help them with holiday booking, many people don’t understand the difference between ATOL (Air Travel Organiser’s Licence) and ABTA (Association of British Travel Agents).

People think that ABTA fully protects. But unless you have booked a package, rather than separate components such as a flight with the airline and a hotel direct with the company or through Booking.com for example, you’re not protected. You’re totally liable if things go wrong, unless you have exceptionally broad travel insurance coverage.

I think we need a campaign to inform travellers of their rights. Forget what Michael O’Leary says, decent travel agents are worth their weight in gold. I believe the Ryanair boos was merely trying to create worry, and so drive people to his budget flights in fear of operators going bust.

Hays Travel, which as a small independent agency has taken on so many high street stores from the failed Thomas Cook, is a hero. Not only has it helped all those staff who were suddenly fearful of their future, but it has helped hundreds of customers who will now be protected when they book their holiday. I applaud them; it’s a large and brave investment.

The travel agent isn’t dead

We know this for a fact in our travel recruitment business. One shoe does not fit all. While some people enjoy booking DIY, many others want the assistance and reassurance of a travel company that is insured and has ATOL. And high-end tour operators and travel agents are doing very well.

I also think that more travel agencies would do well in targeting the middle market that has got used to booking online, but would prefer to have the security of an agency. At the moment the agency market is polarised between luxury and budget.

Good luck to Hays and to all those ex-Thomas Cook staff. If any are still looking for new jobs, don’t hesitate to get in touch.

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