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How to: Make a living in a 'dying' industry

Travel agents may not be as essential as they used to be, but one Irish outfit has managed to survive by adapting to change.

Image: Shutterstock

NAYSAYERS AND FORTUNE-tellers are not hard to find when it comes to predicting how industries will fare in the age of online commerce.

Just a few years ago, many would not have given a healthy prognosis for travel agents.

What was once a prerequisite for travel was becoming an also-ran as consumers dipped into a range of digital options to meet the demands that were once solved by bricks and mortar agents.

Abbey Travel, one of Ireland’s better known agencies, was quick to see the writing on the wall.

“We’re constantly aware of the threat posed by online, and have to be constantly ready to innovate”, according to manager of sports groups and events Ger Armstrong.

How did they do so? On top of the usual package holidays, Abbey focused on one side of its business, and figured out how to leverage its comparative advantage there.

Tours

“Prior to the downturn, we would have concentrated on sports fans going to events abroad. But with the downturn, people have less money, and less of a chance to travel.”

The bottom didn’t completely drop out of the sports tourism market – Abbey still flies around 5,000 Irish fans around the world every year, with the Euro qualifiers in Scotland set to be a big draw this year.

Nonetheless, they had to adapt to changing consumer habits and budgets, so they expanded into new business areas.

They used their connections from running fan-tours and began a specialist service looking after teams and other groups whose demands are too complex to solve with a laptop or a smartphone.

“We now focus on groups that have to travel regardless” – groups like the Irish national soccer team, for which Abbey is now the official agent, handling all overseas travel as well as arrangements here for visiting teams.

Abbey is also the official agent for Cricket Ireland, and one of the overseas agents for Wembley Stadium, as well as managing to land contracts with niche sporting organisations such as gymnastics Ireland.

The agility to change quickly and think of their feet has allowed Abbey to grow during the recession, the travel agent says.

“We had to diversify. We had to go with the change in the market. It would have been tough if we didn’t”, according to Abbey marketing manager Sheila Hendrick.

Over the same time period, the travel agent has seen competitors that offered similar travel options to the premier league and other sports packages fall by the wayside.

The company has been in the business for 26 years, and has seen a lot in that time – including a profound drop off in demand for trips to see Leeds United in recent years.

Pat Dawson, chief executive of the Irish Travel Agents Association says that many of its members are familiar with the new reality that they must change or face closure.

“Technology has become a huge factor within the Irish travel industry, to be able to compete with the international online giants, Irish travel agents have had to adapt and innovate.”

He cited improved online services and ways of giving customers the ability to create custom holidays as two ways Travel Agents can remain relevant in the digital era.

Read: What I learned – making a business work in the Wild West (of Ireland)>

Read: What’s the most popular foreign destination for the Irish?>

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About the author:

Jack Horgan-Jones

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