Think of a travel agent, and you might imagine sitting in boredom while a charmless rep endlessly types your information into a computer. This is one reason why traditional travel agents have been on the wane as vacationers ditch them in favor of making reservations online.
But it doesn’t have to be this way: Virgin Holidays has come up with a plan to make booking a vacation fun. The British 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 made a reservation. The Virgin Holiday Laboratory also features a dress-up box and a green-screen area where prospective vacationers 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 vacation.
Dotted around the store are Bouncepad iPad kiosks that allow customers to flick their way through thousands of vacation 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 vacationers are encouraged to share their green-screen snaps on Twitter and Facebook, as well as post 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 making reservations online, twenty-somethings who have probably never seen a vacation 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 make reservations 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 vacation. But even so, there’s no pressure to finalise the reservations 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 second Holiday Laboratory opened in June 2013 in Sheffield’s Meadowhall shopping center, and the company has plans to roll out the concept to at least 30% of their stores.