On 2 November 2015, e-commerce giant Amazon opened a bookstore, Amazon Books, in Seattle – a real one with walls and a floor and flesh-and-blood staff.
It’s a pretty bold (and some would say befuddling) move by the 21-year-old company, a company that many claim killed the very type of bookstore it has now seemingly opened.
Is this a victory for the independent bookseller? Can it be deemed a capitulation of the big bad online wolf to the charm of real life? Probably not. It’s unlikely the store needs to bring in much of a profit and it’s even more unlikely that the little store (it’s reportedly only 5,500 square feet, which NPR claims is about a fifth of the size of an average Barnes and Noble store) will change Amazon’s business model.
But there is a feeling that Amazon is, if not endorsing, then in the very least, acknowledging the value of the real life retailer.
So what can we in the travel industry take away from all this?
There is still value in the bricks and mortar retailer
'Offline' retailers provide things online retailers can't: among them, instant gratification and the ability to inspect goods before purchase. Anyone who has been burned by the eventual arrival of a much-awaited product that turns out to be faulty knows what I mean. Anyone who can't be bothered to return ill-fitting or not-quite-right items bought online also knows what I mean.
Travel that is booked online can be just as ill-fitting and not-quite-right. But, unlike an automated algorithm, a travel agent has a vested interest in your experience, they want your repeat business and your recommendation, so they want you to have the trip you want, tailored to your needs and not what your browser history suggests.
And who doesn't value a real person over a customer service composite? You can ask Google a question and trawl through forums to try and find the answer to your specific question or you can get that question answered - along with a few others you didn't know you had.
BUT to survive in today's world you must remain relevant
In order to be competitive, today's travel agent cannot operate independently of the internet and all its evil machinations. What Amazon Books does well is take what it knows from its millions of online customers and adapts that knowledge to its physical shopfront. While its website can get you to something specific at the push of a button, its store allows you to browse: books are stacked so that covers, rather than spines, are showing, reviews books have received online are printed and placed underneath each book.
Travel agents can do the same in kind. Look at your competitors. Is the only difference between them and you the logo? Forget the traditional model and layout of a travel agency and consider your modern day customer. Don't shy away from the internet, but, like Amazon, bring it into your stores. Embrace new technology (use tablets, virtual reality) and social media. Show Instagram and Facebook pictures of a destination your client is considering.
The travel agent, as was, is not dead, but that travel agent needs to update their offering in the same way that they need to continually be aware of new products and destinations. If they don't the customer will go elsewhere.
But of course as you continue to evolve and update your business, never forget its core: selling travel and selling travel well. If you don't do that all the latest gadgets and marketing plans will only take you so far.
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