Long live the high street travel agent

Travel Talk

I didn’t impose myself on you last month, as I assumed you would have enough on your plate in the run-up to Christmas – what with gift-buying, card-writing, party-going, and all the haphazard, chaotic and emotional turmoil that goes with it.

Over time I have come to realise that the wonder of Christmas for grown-ups is that, though it will not be as perfect as we hope, we never stop believing that ‘this year’ it will be.

So, with the New Year just a few days old (at the time of writing), I trust your Christmas was enjoyable, and that 2019 will be a happy and healthy year for you and yours. And prosperous, too, if prosperous in on your wish list.

Ponders TravelHave you made your holiday plans yet? I’ve a few things pencilled in, as the replacement knee seems to be settling in nicely (touch wood), and ‘Stick’ is being increasingly discarded. It was a nuisance not being able to make plans last year because of uncertainty about when I would undergo surgery and how soon I would get back to full mobility. But all is going well, and, though I’m not quite ready for the dance floor, the fishnets and sequins are on standby.

A short trip to the USA is in my sights, as are gentle jaunts to places in the UK, and tentative thoughts about Italy.   

My first commitment this year, however, was a day trip to Cambridgeshire, to help an old friend, Clare Dudley, celebrate the opening of her new travel agency.   

She told me I would be required to cut a ribbon, say a few words and sign a few copies of ‘Gullible’s Travels’. (Still available from all bookshops – except W.H. Smith, from which it is banned. But that’s another story.)

Ponders TravelI did all that, as well as meeting her family, staff, friends and most loyal customers. Though the village of Over may be tiny, it and its hinterland seem to have plenty of eager travellers who have the time and money to fulfil their dreams. And, in Clare and her girls, a bunch of professionals who can steer them in the right direction – literally and figuratively.    

Though a few brochures are on discreet display, Ponders Travel is quite unlike the usual sort of travel agency. A ‘boutique’ establishment, it is, more importantly, a very far cry from the type of travel agency you are likely to have in your High Street. The cloned branch of a chain, peddling discounted package deals, with a staff trained to make sales, not friends.

When Clare first told me of her venture I was, frankly, surprised that someone would be opening a High Street travel agency at a time when High Street shops are supposed to be in decline and people have got into the habit of making their travel and holiday arrangements on line.

Ponders TravelBut some research results which came my way at the end of November, a lot of anecdotal evidence, and a comment earlier this month from an official of the Association of British Travel Agents, leads me to believe she may actually be on the right side of a trend – a steady return to using ‘real’ travel agents, just as we did before the internet came along. But – and this is the point – using them to back up the information we get on line.   

That Clare’s customers are overwhelmingly ‘Silver’ strengthens the parallel between what she and other independent agents do face-to-face and what we do by way of this web site. Thank goodness there is room for all of us to operate in harmony.

Ponders TravelIncidentally, I had just settled down to write this article when I heard of research results from another source, this time regarding independent bookshops.  

Apparently they, too, are bucking the High Street trend and – while not yet thriving mightily – are not vanishing as fast as some trade observers forecast. Indeed, new ones are opening.

As someone with very strong opinions about bookshops (see paragraph seven!) I think this a splendid trend.

Who knows? This could be the year when the worth of truly independent travel agents (and bookshops, and other High Street specialists) gets to be appreciated by those of us who like face-to-face contact and advice from folk who are knowledgeable and enthusiastic.

To reinforce, of course, the advice and information provided on the Silver Travel Advisor site by folk who are equally knowledgeable and enthusiastic. 

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John Carter

Long-time presenter of TV’s ‘Wish You Were Here’ and BBC holiday programmes

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