Published on Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Travel agents 'keep the market honest', says leading brand expert


Travel agents are information aggregators who keep the market honest, a leading brand-building specialist told the ABTA Travel Convention in Seville.

Rory Sutherland, vice chairman of O&M Group UK, told delegates: "The internet is trying to get rid of you, Silicone Valley is trying to get rid of you because it sees intermediaries as inefficient," but he said they were key to building customer trust.

"Be really, really careful of allowing your business to be run by accountants and procurement people," he said. "They are looking for efficiency in a single transaction, but it gets in the way of loyalty."

He suggested the industry was 'trapped in an efficiency bubble', trying to drive more online conversions, but he said this meant that companies were selling on price alone, which is not necessarily what the customer wants.

While travel comparison websites always display flights according to the airfare, Sutherland said that when he advised British Airways to always display premium fares even when customers had requested economy it saw as seven to eight figure increase in revenue.

"The only variable on travel comparison websites is price, but there is far more intelligent stuff to be done, such as telling people that one flight has wifi," he said.

Sutherland said the industry should look more at human behaviour and suggested it could learn lessons from firms such as Apple, which has been 'supreme' at understanding what people want from a phone, without selling on price, and also Uber, which removes uncertainty, which humans hate.

"Uber has been good at understanding this and removing huge levels of uncertainty - we know before we book how long [the pick-up] will take and you can track its arrival - with a minicab firm, you don't know, you sit in your living room wondering if it's just around the coner, or think oh my god, has it already gone."

Similarly, he said he advised British Airways that when a flight is delayed, not to put on the airport display board 'delayed' but rather to put the length of the delay, even if it was an over-estimate.  "We would rather wait 10 minutes for a train knowing that it will be 10 minutes, than wait five not knowing when the train will come," he said.

Sutherland said companies can control human behaviour, such as the way restaurants encourage people to drink wine by providing a wine list with only a few spirits and beers listed at the back, but he warned this could be dangerous in the travel industry if it encourages everybody to flock to the same destinations, which will quickly become swamped.

"That problem with long-haul travel where we will all go to the same place is something we have to fight," he said.

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