Think of a travel agent and you might well imagine sitting in boredom while a rep endlessly types your details into a computer. This is one reason why high street travel agents have been on the wane as holidaymakers ditch them in favour of online booking.
But it doesn’t have to be this way: Virgin Holidays has come up with a plan to make booking a vacation fun. The company has turned its back on the traditional notion of a travel agent and dreamed up something entirely new: the technology rich ‘Holiday Laboratory’.
Customers who walk into the Holiday Lab get their first surprise when the scent of coconuts and soft sand wafts into their nostrils. The idea is to make customers feel like they’ve started their trip before they’ve even booked it. The Virgin Holiday Laboratory also features a dress-up box and a green-screen area where prospective holidaymakers can picture themselves against the destination of their choice.
But beyond the play, there is a serious revolution in the concept of how travel agents should work. Gone are walls of brochures and the bored reps chained to their computers: instead, customers are encouraged to use tablets to experiment with the elements of their dream holiday.
Dotted around the store are Bouncepad iPad kiosks that allow customers to flick their way through thousands of holiday combinations. If they find a video of a resort they like, they can even ping it onto the wall screen to get a better view. Virgin Holiday ‘technicians’ are also on hand to offer expert advice.
According to Mark Anderson, Virgin Holidays’ customer and sales director, the Holiday Laboratory has been designed to “put ‘play’ at the heart of the buying experience”, and social media is a big part of that. Prospective holidaymakers are encouraged to share their green-screen snaps on Twitter and Facebook, as well as posting them on the giant screens that cover the walls of the Holiday Lab.
The whole experience is designed to appeal to a generation that has grown up booking online, twenty-somethings who have probably never seen a holiday brochure. “You see adverts for companies who say ‘once you pick up our brochure, you know who you’re booking with’,” says Virgin Holidays’ managing director Amanda Wills, “but what does that mean to a 20-year-old?” In the Holiday Laboratory, the only paper brochures to be seen are the ones that have been recycled into furniture.
So why head into a store when you can book online at home? Anderson says the hope is that customers will be “inspired by their surroundings”, and the on-hand technicians can help to guide customers through the often tricky business of booking a holiday. But even so, there’s no pressure to finalise the booking in-store: customers can take their holiday choices home in digital format or have them emailed, allowing them to make the final decision in the comfort of their own home.
“We can’t wait to see the reaction of our customers,” says Anderson.
The next Holiday Laboratory is due to open on 8th June 2013 in Sheffield’s Meadowhall shopping centre, and the company has plans to roll out the concept to at least 30% of their stores.