Agents unfazed by web sales boom

Travel agent business remained buoyant region-wide this summer, despite the increased popularity of online and direct booking channels offering cut-price deals.

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By  Joseph Mortimer Published  September 1, 2006

Travel agent business remained buoyant region-wide this summer, despite the increased popularity of online and direct booking channels offering cut-price deals. Agents are combating the online threat by emphasising the personal service they provide and shunning the suppliers that try to cut them out of the picture. “There has been a lot of direct selling and there are situations where hotels are undercutting or matching contracted rates,” said Grant Holmes, general manager of Kanoo Holidays, based in Saudi Arabia. Small independent hotels were the main offenders he said, and as a result, Kanoo Holidays would be less inclined to push business their way during the low season. Robby George, tours manager at Eihab Travels in Oman, revealed customers were checking prices online and then demanding the same rates from agents. “The way to convince them to continue booking through us is to emphasise that in an agency there is someone reliable who can be held responsible for taking care of arrangements,” he said. Ian Alden, sales manager at Prime Travel, Dubai, added: “What tends to happen is that customers going from A to B and back will book online, but [customers] who want more information or varied products will always use an agent.” Most suppliers said they had witnessed an increase in online bookings this summer, but that the percentage of revenue accrued from direct channels was minimal. At least 80% of Etihad Airways’ sales are GDS-generated according to Husain Nalkhanday, area manager, Dubai and Northern Emirates. “[But] online booking is becoming more trendy,” he conceded. “People are beginning to see that the online booking engine is reliable and safe, so they are gaining the confidence to do it again.” Holiday Autos Middle East said online bookings for summer 2006 had tripled compared to 2005 figures, whereas agency business had shown slower growth. Agents who missed opportunities to sell lucrative add-on products were to blame for this scenario, said regional business development manager, Ben Kurian. “[For car rental], it’s not that online sales are impacting travel agents, but rather that they are impacting online sales,” he explained.

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