Face it, holidays are personal

For more than a decade newspapers and analysts have been predicting the demise of the high street travel agent. Competing with the infinite possibilities of Google, over-the-counter agents have struggled and many long-established companies have closed. Curiously, though, we may now be coming full circle as a growing number of online travel businesses rediscover the power of face-to-face communication.

As they browse Titan Travel’s website, for example, prospective customers are offered a “live chat” option. Click it, and up pops an agent (called Louise, when I test it) flanked by pictures of safari animals and happy travellers. She is coming live from the company’s headquarters in Surrey, streamed via OhHi, a live video application aiming to push its way into the travel market.

Live video chat has already seen significant success in other industries. US fashion retailers have deployed visible online assistants for several years, hoping to reduce “shopping cart abandonment” (where customers get stuck, or distracted, before completing the purchase) and to encourage shoppers to spend longer online (Heels.com reported customers who spoke to a live assistant spent nearly five times longer on the site).

“On larger purchases, customers find that seeing a real person makes them more comfortable handing over money,” says Matthew Silverstone, chief executive of OhHi. Politeness means that shoppers also tend to feel a certain obligation when chatting with a real person. “Once in a conversation with a person face-to-face, the customer is less likely to simply click on another website or go to another competitor.”

I sampled the service on the website of AA Getaways, another OhHi client. Michelle, speaking from the firm’s office in Bedfordshire, navigated me towards a holiday for two in Sicily, including flights, a family-owned hotel and a two-door Fiat Panda. At one stage in our exchange, her face was replaced by images from inside the rooms at the hotel. She told me live video was a relatively new thing for her, but was proving successful. A few minutes after our conversation – I could see her, but she couldn’t see me – a quote for my holiday in Sicily arrived in my inbox.

OhHi is not alone in driving the technology in the travel business. Another player is Vee24, which has previously worked with car giants Lexus, Ford and Jaguar. Its first forays into the travel industry can be found, intriguingly, on a handful of Austrian and Swiss hotel websites.

At the Edelweiss & Gurgl, a four-star hotel in Austria’s Oetz Valley, sales manager Michael Anfang has fielded more than 2,000 video conversations in the past year. I give it a try, and am first greeted by a short introduction video, featuring a lady in traditional Dirndl outfit. Then Anfang appears, and we embark on a tour of the hotel website on our shared “engagement panel” – a window showing his face and the hotel website. He’s happy to show me around the various room options and give information on the local climbing and skiing, as well as how to travel to and from local airports.

Anfang is clearly a video chat evangelist, and shows me other local hotels and tourism organisations who have adopted the software, having seen it at the Edelweiss & Gurgl. At one point he’s moving my mouse around my screen, from Austria, aiming me towards their ski school packages. “We can fill out forms together if you like?”

Vee24 has recently installed its systems into the offices of Thomson Al Fresco, a large UK operator, but the company currently only offers “text chat” rather than full video interaction. This seems a safer option for now, perhaps, and is increasingly popular – a recent survey suggested almost two-thirds of American online shoppers have text-chatted with a live agent in the past year.

Video seems a natural next step, though, especially as people grow used to video chat options such as Google+’s “hangouts” service for online meetings and Apple’s FaceTime.

For travel companies, the other great advantage is replacing an expensive chain of commercial premises with a central call-centre – or even doing away with that. Travel Counsellors is a successful network of 1,200 agents who work by phone from their homes in seven countries. It already makes extensive use of video conferencing to connect its staff and to recruit, but says that it plans to introduce online video chats with customers within the next few months. Rather than connecting with the next available call centre operator, clients are assigned a personal agent.

“The best way to create trust is to build a one to one relationship,” says Steve Byrne, the company’s managing director. “Where we win is by showing customers who are used to booking online what they’ve been missing.”

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