‘This millennium has been dominated by the Internet and the low-cost flight-generated era of independent travel, with travel agents struggling to keep up and being forced to sell single components and dynamic packages,’ according to Mintel’s December 2008 Travel Agents report.
And what with the collapse of 25 or so airlines in the 12 months to November 2008, the travel industry couldn’t have looked bleaker. But that doesn’t tell the whole story, as there are pockets of retail activity, clustered around particular consumer groups and travel offers.
‘Travel agency customers are now most likely to be ABs or C2s, pointing to a growing upmarket/mass-market split, and are most likely to be couples in the pre-/no family life stage, or in the third age segment,’ says Mintel.
Not surprising, then, that some of the liveliest brands appear to be catering to these audiences. Young person’s agency STA Travel debuts its new look and positioning this spring, while for the more mature and deep-pocketed clientele there’s National Geographic’s first store, on London’s Regent Street, with its café, auditorium and exhibition space as well as a travel desk. In addition, luxury tour operator Abercrombie & Kent’s first bricks-and-mortar site opened in February in London’s Harrods, while last year specialist long haul operator Kuoni Travel redesigned its London offer and hit the high street in Manchester.
These niche operators are seeing the value of face-to-face consultation, and what Mintel describes as a ‘reverse migration’, from Web to high street. As Celia Pronto, marketing director of STA Travel, puts it, ‘We are still primarily a retail organisation, dealing with complex bookings which can’t be fulfilled online, and this involves quite a bit of work discussing what the customer wants.’
STA’s customer research highlighted that while young people still have a strong appetite for travel, they’re taking shorter trips, though some of these will still be big, round-the-world jaunts of two or three months. Pronto worked on the new positioning with brand consultant Anne Bahr Thompson. R&D&Co translated the positioning into a visual identity, and Fitch into retail interiors. Pronto declines to reveal details of the design. The first manifestation of all this activity will be at a new London site, with a roll-out across STA’s 400-plus branches worldwide (45 of them in the UK) set to follow gradually.
Meanwhile, Abercrombie & Kent’s 150m2 retail presence is the work of GP Studio. The site is on the lower ground floor of Harrods, next to the banking hall, where British Airways once had a presence. Gregor Jackson, director of GP Studio, explains that the Knightsbridge department store has the right customer profile for the tour operator, since its offer is ‘the villa with infinity pool, the safari holiday, the yacht charter, the private jet, and so on’.
GP Studio’s design has been heavily influenced by luxury yachts in its efforts to create a sophisticated space. Hence the curving walls, the timbers, and the stern-like seating. ‘There’s no actual physical product to fill the space, so we have a map of the world in gold silhouette, an exhibition area, plasma screens – space that can be opened up for events or launches, or for a partnership with a yacht firm,’ Jackson adds.
National Geographic’s 1800m2, three-storey shop also boasts interactive visual displays, exhibits, an auditorium, a café, a travel desk and photography displays. The concept was developed by the in-house design team of the company’s franchisee, Worldwide Retail Store, and realised by Italian architect April.
Kuoni’s flagships in London’s Kensington and Manchester branches, both of which opened last year, are courtesy of 20/20. Again, the emphasis is on engagement and entertainment. According to 20/20, ‘Visitors are invited to enjoy a coffee in the cosy lounge area and watch videos on the widescreen plasma televisions, then join an expert consultant in one of the wood-panelled booths to create their very own dream travel experience. Choosing and booking a holiday becomes an engaging, intimate and reassuring dialogue.’
So, although Mintel states that ‘overall shop numbers are likely to diminish further’, it has also spotted signs of hope for those specialist operators who see ‘the brand value of having a visible “real-world” presence offering face-to-face consultation’.
No wonder, then, that these high-end brands are positioning themselves to cater for high-maintenance holiday-makers.