Who would have thought, heading into 2020, that storefronts would be having a moment

This article originally ran in the December 5th, 2019 issue of Travelweek magazine. Canadian travel agents can subscribe for free to receive the magazine weekly here.

TORONTO — No one’s calling it the resurgence of the storefront – yet. In the travel industry, the migration to digital-everything is still in full swing, plus more agents than ever are going home-based.

But after 25 years of hearing that online was the only way to go, and that traditional bricks-and-mortar businesses, including travel agencies, were heading for extinction, something quite incredible has happened.

Overwhelmed by the mind-boggling volume of information and options that came with the digital revolution, consumers are rediscovering the joys of doing business with an actual person, face-to-face, in a local setting.

It’s a welcome bit of vindication for bricks-and-mortar agencies that were written off long ago.

Even itravel2000.com now has a storefront. Agents can’t help but note the irony: an OTA that was part of the mid-1990s wave of new online booking technology, poised to render traditional travel agencies all but irrelevant, has joined the ranks of bricks-and-mortar agencies.

Acquired by TravelBrands parent company Red Label Vacations in 2016, which in turn was acquired by H.I.S. Co. in early 2019, itravel2000.com opened its new storefront in downtown Toronto last month. “I still value bricks-and-mortar locations,” said Frank DeMarinis, CEO, Red Label Vacations at the store’s launch. “We’re going against the grain. We’re going the other way, to storefronts. Travel is changing and becoming more experiential. You need storefront locations.” The Toronto shop is a pilot project, he added, and more could be on the way.

Meanwhile Red Label Vacations’ retail network, The Travel Experts, is the result of another 180-degree turn. The Travel Experts, now a network of independent home-based agents, was once the bricks-and-mortar powerhouse Sears Travel.

Seeing the value in the storefront model, The Travel Agent Next Door, best known as a host agency for home-based agents, created an offshoot division for storefronts and launched it earlier this year as The Agency Solution.

Headed up by retail industry veteran Louise Gardiner, it’s designed to support smaller storefront agencies in the $1 million to $3 million range by helping to offload many of the daily costs involved in running a small business. Signing on with The Agency Solution allows agency owners to grow their revenues and cut costs while remaining true to their own brand, says Gardiner.

“Owners know that the margins have been shrinking over the past years and they need to become creative in how they manage their costs but at some point they need to find a solution that will take them through another 10+ years,” says Gardiner. The Agency Solution is aimed at reducing burden and costs and allowing owners “more time to work on the revenue side of the equation … all while controlling their own business decisions and promoting their own brand.”

Says Gardiner: “Having a storefront in a local community provides a service that is still viable. When a customer is looking to spend thousands of dollars on a vacation they want to meet face-to-face. They enjoy a professional business environment that is known in the community and easily accessible. This is where a storefront fits in nicely.”

The passion that storefront owners have for their business is the key, she adds. “They are proud of their agencies and their teams and they want success. They are willing to go the extra mile to make it work.”

She adds: “Having been in this wonderful travel industry of ours for over 40 years, I truly believe that there are opportunities for many different distribution models.”

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