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Is Online Booking Making Travel Agents Redundant?

23/06/2013 23:24 BST | Updated 23/06/2013 23:25 BST

The online world is a pretty fantastic place, and for people who can't be bothered and who don't have the time or patience to visit a store or pick up the phone to speak to an agent, companies that have joined us in the 21st Century and let you buy or book online via their websites are a saving grace. Others prefer a human touch, either face-to-face over a counter or over the telephone. This is particularly true with the older generations, many of whom find the Internet intimidating or too confusing, preferring a real person to handle their queries and make their purchase or bookings. There is something reassuring about having a real person help you out, but it's becoming scarcer every passing year.

The travel industry is a prime example of where the human element of the industry is becoming more and more redundant. When you travel by air, you have self-check-ins and the ability to check-in online so that you don't have the inconvenience of having to queue and then talk to a human being. Train stations have pre-booked ticket machines where you can pick up tickets you booked online without heading to a kiosk to collect them. The ticket bollards also take away the need for ticket inspectors on the platforms, and the trains themselves.

This may sound like the beginning of a John Connor from Terminator-style rant about technology, but when there are redundancies being made in so many industries and travel agencies and call centres cutting on staff and being closed down all the time, it does become quite sad.

Just last week, travel giant Thomas Cook announced that they were making up to 2,500 staff redundant over the next month as it plans to close 195 stores, some even with the same postcode. It makes sense that they would close down stores when they have so many within such a small distance of each other, but it couldn't have been an easy decision for UK Chief Executive Peter Fankhauser to make. 2,500 people will soon be without jobs, yet Thomas Cook will still be making the same amount of bookings via online booking and the existing stores.

Of course, there are other reasons why Thomas Cook have made these redundancies, and the changes are fundamentally about making their business run as efficiently as possible. When you're one of the biggest travel companies in the world, you have to do what you have to do to stay on top. But it doesn't fill travel agents and college or university students who are taking courses in travel with confidence to hear about all of these negative news stories.

Smaller travel and accommodation providers are automating as well. "With new tools for their existing websites, even small travel tour and activity booking companies are fully automating everything from taking reservations down to checking in customers via their smartphones when they arrive" according to Grant Jurgeneit, Co-Founder of Checkfront, an online booking software developer.

The flipside of the coin is that a number of people still want to walk into a travel store and talk about deals with an agent who can talk them through hotels, resorts, flights and give recommendations based on what you have been talking about. You don't get that from an online booking system, which are built for speed and finding deals rather than interaction and making the booking of your holiday a fun and interesting experience in itself. There is something nice about sitting down with someone and putting a holiday together piece by piece with an agent. But the internet has made this less popular than it used to be.

There is no easy answer to this. It is likely that small, independent travel companies will look to have as little staff on their books as possible and rely on the impressive online booking software available to them when they are setting up their business to keep their costs down and to capture the lucrative online market of holidaymakers who don't want to visit a travel store for whatever reason. But there clearly is a wide market of people who want the human element of their booking, and for the next couple of generations at least, the travel agent will be needed to be the immediate face of the business. It will be a sad day when the internet fully takes over and the travel agency is no longer required.