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Is there still a place for the traditional travel agency?

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Given how easy it is book a holiday online these days, you might think time is up for traditional travel agencies, with their paper catalogues and cardboard stands. But across several recent surveys, travel agencies have proven to be surprisingly resilient.

According to the German Travel Association, the number of travel agencies in that country rose slightly last year to almost 10,000.

At the German division of travel agency Tui, only 20 per cent of bookings are made online. Often, it’s the complexity of a trip that’s the deciding factor: while customers prefer to book single flights online, those booking long trips with multiple transfers still prefer to go through an agency, says spokeswoman Kathrin Spichala.

“Those who want more security are more likely to go with travel agencies,” adds Julia Buchweitz from the Consumer Centre Schleswig-Holstein. Thanks to their secure partnerships with contractors, and greater transparency regarding risks and uncertainties, agencies are preferred by consumers who appreciate peace of mind.

Booking through an agency can be more expensive, though. While travel agencies are not allowed to charge customers higher fares than they would have to pay on the internet, they can recommend providers that will pay them better commission.

None of this means online travel portals are losing ground – on the contrary. Figures from the market research company GfK show that in the summer of 2017, sales through online travel portals in Germany rose by 9% compared with the previous year. Bookings in classic travel agencies, on the other hand, increased by only 3%.

“The online travel portals will further expand their lead over the stationary travel agency,” predicts Doerte Nordbeck from GfK. “The reason for this is the strength of the onliners in the last-minute and short-term business.”

Specialising in certain types of holiday – such as cruises – can be an advantage for travel agencies. “If only a certain kind of travel is offered, the employees in the office can offer specialised consultation because they have made similar trips themselves,” says consumer protection group Buchweitz.

According to Buchweitz, some travel agencies are also using digital technology to try and lure customers. Tui, for example, is currently testing robots that offer initial advice to customers at the front door. In the offices of Thomas Cook, you can even explore potential destinations using a virtual reality headset. — dpa

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