In everyday language, the term travel agency is more common than tour operator (TO), because this is where people usually go to purchase their trips.
An essential role
The travel agency plays an essential role, since in this sector information asymmetry is the norm. Unlike in traditional commerce, where customers can browse, see and even touch the product they want to buy, in tourism, customers are completely dependent on the information provided by the tour operator due to the distance. The travel agency provides the personalised service that people want in order to feel confident about their purchase. As a result, the travel agent is legally responsible and liable for the sale, as confirmed by legal expert Delphine Bazin-Beust in the entry on travel agents. How does the profession function and how has it changed?
A brick and mortar store
The history of travel agencies is not documented, unlike that of TOs (Tissot, 2000). But presumably they appeared when TOs expanded their market areas and felt the need to be present, or represented, in larger market spaces.
Most agencies are concentrated in the peri-urban areas rather than in the urban centres where the cost of land is higher. They are easily accessible and appear in clusters, in order to better serve shoppers (Ill. 4).
More recently, travel agencies have opened in the shopping malls of hypermarkets located in the suburbs. They have thus been incorporated into the strategy of the giant supermarket retailers who are in head-on competition with other businesses, all trying to attract customers with high purchasing power. It is expected that these customers will also shop at the nearby hypermarkets.
In reality, the function can take many forms. In tourist regions, travel agencies often serve inbound tourists, and those that focus on this aspect have their own special business category. In less popular areas, this is performed by official operators, in particular tourist offices, run by the cities, and reservation centres, run by departments.
Some agencies are specialised in the business travel sector, while others provide a wider range of services.
At first, travel agencies marketed the offerings of various tour operators (TOs), but gradually, they were incorporated into vertical concentration strategies by operators aiming to control their own distribution. For example, the TO Nouvelles Frontières had its own network. Illustration 4, above, shows the travel agency of the tour operator TUI.
Other tour operators have set up their own network of agencies with a predilection for large cities other than Paris. These are typically high-end tour operators, like Voyageurs du Monde. Their goal, in addition to selling tours, is to maintain direct contact with the customers.
In reaction, independent agencies have grouped together to form voluntary chains such as Selectour (Ill. 5).
More recently, hypermarket chains have started to sell travel under their own brands. While some of these ventures have been short-lived, others have become a permanent new offering, characterised by lower-end services to nearby destinations, particularly in France, or medium-haul destinations, where demand is strongest. These travel offices are located just outside the hypermarkets, in shopping malls, or just after the checkout area, but not (yet) actually inside the stores. Some have even tried to open in town centres, like the Carrefour agency in Challans, in Vendée.
Today, online sales
In the early 2000s, the internet revolutionised the sector, and online travel agencies proliferated as TOs built websites to directly sell their offerings (Ill. 6).
New players also appeared, such as Evaneos, which connects potential travellers with agencies serving inbound tourists located in the destination countries (Ill. 7). Evaneos provides a guarantee by selecting intermediaries for people who want to be put in contact with local professionals without going through TOs. Platforms have also entered the game, like TripAdvisor, which originally only collected consumer reviews. This evolution is part of a disintermediation-reintermediation process (Clergeau et al., 2014), where people take charge of their own travel planning, no longer using travel agencies or tour operators, and also take advantage of the new opportunities that the market has to offer.
However, this trend does not seem to have disrupted in-person sales or led to the disappearance of physical travel agencies. The agencies reacted by both consolidating into chains and enhancing the added value they provide to customers in terms of personalised service and advice. As mentioned above, one of the characteristics of tourism is information asymmetry due to distance. Consumers have more faith when speaking face to face with a travel agent who can listen to their needs and provide advice, rather than buying online, even if they can reach an advisor by phone.
As a result, the number of travel agencies remains stable. The tourism industry caters to diverse individuals with varying needs, preferences and skills (Guibert, 2016), and each agency has a unique strategy to cater to its audience. For instance, travelling through South America with Tierra Latina (Illustration 6) is more enjoyable if one speaks Spanish, as the experience is based on staying with a local host family.
In contrast, emerging countries and China have witnessed a surge in tourism and the digital economy simultaneously, resulting in a more highly developed online booking sector and very few physical agencies. This trend is consistent with the general rule that latecomers to modern technologies tend to adopt the most recent methods and often skip earlier stages of development.
- Clergeau Cécile, avec la collaboration de Glasberg Olivier et Violier Philippe, 2014, Management des entreprises du tourisme – Stratégie et organisation. Paris, Dunod, coll. «Stratégie de l’entreprise», 352 p.
- Guibert Christophe, 2016, «Les déterminants dispositionnels du “touriste pluriel”. Expériences, socialisations et contextes», SociologieS. en ligne.
- Tissot Laurent, 2000, Naissance d’une industrie touristique. Les Anglais et la Suisse au XIXe siècle. Lausanne, Payot.
- Violier Philippe, Duhamel Philippe, Gay Jean-Christophe, Mondou Véronique, 2021, Le tourisme en France, 2: approche régionale, Londres, ISTE Editions, 232 p.