Allison is a travel agent in her 40s, running her own agency under a franchise in Manchester. This interview was recorded over Zoom during the third week of lockdown and has been lightly edited for length.
I came to the UK as a nanny, then started working in travel so that I could see the world. That was 20 years ago. I worked first for a wholesaler, where travel agents go to get the bulk discounts. Then I started working for a private members' travel club. After having a baby, like many new mothers, I decided to start my own company. I’ve run my travel agency for nine years now, specialising in bands and artists who tour.
Over 20 years I’ve seen a lot of changes. When I started out, I was working with hotels through a system called freesale. A travel agent would ring us up to book a room and we’d pull out an A4 sheet, write in the dates and booking number, and fax it to the hotel. If someone cancelled or changed the date you'd get out the Tippex. If something went wrong, you'd have to place a call to another country and hope that somebody spoke your language. We’d write out plane tickets and post carbon copies. It was that basic. Even though e-tickets began to take off soon after, for a long time we still posted paper copies of everything.
It's not all that different now, actually. It's ticking boxes and saving files instead. The simple tasks are all automated now. The big companies have their own bespoke systems, with add-ons for different operators that allow them to chop and change what they need. But it's still human-operated. When it comes to managing a tailor-made tour, you still have to have a human look at it and check that everything connects. That's what I love about my job — the satisfaction of making sure everything connects the way it should. I love doing that for people. Pulling something out of a hat to make sure they get where they need to go.
However, we all know that people like to book their own travel now. Google's amazing, there's so much information one can get, and that's fine. A lot of people don't see the need for travel agents anymore. But a lot of my work happens just at this point — when someone who didn’t see the need for a travel agent couldn't get the information they wanted. They'll come to me saying, 'I checked this website and found the cheapest flight, but when I clicked through it wasn't available.' Or 'there are 57 sites but I can't find the one flight I need'. It's information overload for consumers now. It's simply easier to hand your journey to someone who knows the best live systems inside and out. I've got 20 years of experience knowing things like which airlines work together, or that domestic flights don't include bags. Details like this make a difference, as anyone who’s been caught out by them can tell you.
What I've observed over time is that actually, the more automation there is, the less your average person pays attention to details. So in fact there's more need for a human to point them out.
I'm a home worker, so to me, social distancing doesn't feel that much different. I work remotely and my job is made possible by technology. I could operate my business from my phone if I had to. But on the other hand, I need that technology to work superbly. If I'm going to get the last seat on a flight for someone I have to have a working connection. I can't do my job otherwise.
Most of my business now involves looking after bands and artists who tour. But I still look after luxury travel, those once-in-a-lifetime trips, as well as flight logistics for other operators. I am getting enquiries for travel later this year, though no one wants to commit yet as no one knows what the world will look like in the near future. A big part of my business is handling flights for people playing festivals, and those will be the last things to come back.
At the same time there are new challenges. There was a huge music festival in Panama — everyone was about to leave when the government put them all in lockdown for two weeks. After, I had to get them home to South Africa, the UK, the US, Germany, and of course every government was changing their policy daily, and I had to stay informed of all that. That kept me busy — up all night at the end of WhatsApp calls to people panicking on the other side of the world.
If I could change anything about the industry, I’d say it would be lovely if more technologies would talk to each other better than they do. My job involves constant training on new systems and you just don’t know when they’re going to fall out. Somebody will invent something to make them talk to each other, but sometimes it’s more complicated than it needs to be.
As to the future — these are unprecedented times. In some ways the travel industry has already gone through its shakeup, as we've seen our big operators go bust. We've realised that no matter how big you are, you're not invincible. And we've realised that there are still lots of people who really want to be able to talk to a human. Especially now that we're all so disconnected, stuck at home alone for the foreseeable future. People are going to miss each other. I think it’s possible they’ll be more likely, even after the quarantine is over, to buy that bread from the market, support a local vendor, or pick up the phone to call a travel agent.