By Mark Richards.
Figures from WH Smith over Christmas clearly showed the continuing decline of the high street. But the company enjoyed considerable success with its travel division, highlighting the buoyant UK holiday market. But are we booking with the traditional high street travel agent? Or have the travel agents moved much closer to home?
The vast majority of the big names on the high street have now reported their figures for the crucial Christmas trading period with – as we reported previously – both Marks and Spencer’s and Debenhams turning in disappointing results, which will surely see more stores closing in the year ahead.
If there was one chain that you would have bet on joining them it was WH Smith. After all, what are WHS for any more? Stationery? Go to Rymans. Cards? Clintons is three shops away. Books? There is this upstart company called Amazon…
Well, it shows what I know. In the 20 weeks to January 19th sales were up by a whopping 6%.
But look a little more deeply into the figures from WH Smith and they tell an interesting story – one that may very well give us an indication of where both the high street and the domestic travel industry are going.
WH Smith’s like-for-like sales on the high street were down by 2% – although the group did manage £9m of cost savings there.
More importantly, though, the company saw a 16% rise in its travel division (with a 3% increase in like-for-like sales). This covers WHS outlets at train stations and airports and is increasingly where the company sees its future.
Group Chief Executive Stephen Clarke credited the increase to a new ‘concept’ store at Heathrow and an increase in air passenger numbers. So clearly we are continuing to go on holiday: the question is, will we be booking those holidays on the high street?
Goodbye to the high street…
Among the slew of threatened high street closures – M&S, Debenhams, WH Smith when they decide to concentrate on airports, yet more branches of RBS and the bookmakers when the Government finally cuts the maximum stake on fixed odds betting terminals – there cannot be a bigger certainty than the travel agents.
If I walk from my office to my local branch of Gregg’s (no, I have still not tried the vegan sausage roll…) I walk past three traditional travel agents shops – one branch of Thomas Cook and two lesser known ones. As I glance in through the window the view is always the same. A girl in her early 20s sitting at a desk, talking to another girl in her early 20s sitting at another desk. Customers? Yes, you might very occasionally see an old couple in one of the three shops, but that is it.
Foreign exchange? A quick search for ‘online travel exchange’ produces 587m results – and there surely cannot be enough profit in exchanging my £200 worth of euros to cover wages, shop running costs and business rates.
…And hello to your lounge
That does not, however, mean that everyone has forsaken the travel agents and is sitting snugly at home booking their next holiday online.
According to a recent article on the BBC January has seen a jump in holiday bookings for this summer – as “people rush to escape the doom and gloom” – but this is due not to the high street but to ‘a growing army of 2,000 personal travel agents who work from home and visit clients wherever convenient.’
What a great idea. So are personal travel agents the future? Speaking as someone who is currently trying to arrange a walking holiday in Ireland and needs to line up 10 different B&Bs, plus planes, trains and a hotel, I would not need a lot of convincing. If someone could come round to the house, listen to what I want, go away and make the bookings and present me with tickets and an itinerary I would consider that great service and one well worth a reasonable fee. It would certainly save me what looks like being two days’ work.
Quoted in the BBC article, Michelle Tolton – one of the ‘army of 2,000 travel agents’ says that she sells holidays in clients’ houses, over the phone and through Facebook. “I do all the legwork,” she says, “Because clients have busy lives.”
January is traditionally a crucial period for the travel industry. There had been suggestions that people would be unwilling to book holidays this year because of fears about Brexit but, according to the latest figures from market specialists GfK Travel Insights, January has been even busier than normal, with non-EU destinations (including Turkey, Egypt and Tunisia) up by 19% compared to last year.
We are also spending slightly more – possibly thanks to the wage rises that finally started to appear last year – with the average spend per person up to £982. According to the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA), 38% of holidaymakers are planning to spend the same as last year – but 27% are determined to spend more.
One suggestion is that we are cutting back on mini-breaks so that we can spend more on our main holiday of the year, with ABTA’s figures for the 12 months to 2018 suggesting that the number of short breaks fell from 1.3 per person to 1.1 – although given that these are often taken in the UK that is not great news for the UK economy.
Other notable trends saw more and more young people going on cruises, and a significant increase in the number of people holidaying alone – until recently a decision met with a sad shake of the head…
In 2011 only 6% of us went on holiday on our own: this doubled to 12% in the twelve months to August 2017 and was up again last year to 15% – nearly one in six of us.
It seems that Billy No Mates is lonely no more. He has a personal travel agent sitting in his lounge…