MANY travel retailers spotted an opportunity to expand when Helloworld stumbled onto the stage back in 2013. As the brand made its first tentative steps, competitors looked to capitalise on rising disenchantment as Harvey World Travel, Jetset, Travelworld and Travelscene American Express were consigned to the scrap heap. The result was a raft of recruitment drives as groups courted wavering agencies, all pondering their future. Since then, many have made their call, electing to embrace the new era or opting to cut and run. Which is why I find it curious that North America-based Ensemble believes the time is now right to launch in Australia. If a local operation for Ensemble has been in the pipeline for three years as Australia and New Zealand vice president Trish Shepherd suggests was the case, why did it not launch earlier when a greater number of JTG agents were at their most malleable. Has Ensemble not missed the boat? Explaining the reasons behind the launch, Shepherd cited the industry’s rapid period of change, with many agents considering their options in light of the Helloworld consolidation. That was certainly the case, but is less so now. Eighteen months have passed since Helloworld’s launch and many retailers have either stuck with Helloworld or been seduced with promises of riches by rival groups. Travellers Choice, itravel and Escape Travel all picked up disaffected former JTG agents amid the upheaval. Of course there are some who continue to ponder which direction to take, but the pool of potential members for Ensemble has diminished. In addition, is there really room, or a need, for another travel agency group in Australia? According to Shepherd, Ensemble is in talks with an “extensive list” of agents, and more have expressed an interest. You wouldn’t expect her to say anything else. But aside from the ‘big two’ of Flight Centre and Helloworld, there are several well established bricks and mortar groups catering for a broad cross section of agents, while the home working networks are growing forces.
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And I can’t imagine wholesalers will be doing cartwheels over the thought of servicing another group of agents. To achieve the buying power which Ensemble requires will need critical mass in terms of agency numbers and turnover. Shepherd suggests that will happen “quickly”. She may be right, but I can’t help thinking it won’t be quite so straightforward. It could also be tough going for the industry as a whole in 2015 judging from Flight Centre’s profit downgrade shortly before Christmas. The retailer said travel spending slowed in the first five months of the financial year in what was a worrying sign for the rest of the sector. Trading conditions are “challenging”, Flight Centre revealed. While that may be put down to economic conditions, I can’t help thinking that travel and tourism will also be impacted by world events. Travel has been remarkably resilient in recent years but events in Paris – and in Sydney with the hostage tragedy – seem to have created a wave of paranoia I have not seen before. And the spate of air disasters over the past few months will not have helped public confidence. Travel could be in for bumpy year.