Arnie WeissmannI received a call from a New York Times reporter asking if I thought the opening of the Liberty Travel flagship store in midtown Manhattan signified a trend toward an expansion of brick-and-mortar travel agency locations.

I replied that I didn’t think so. Liberty’s parent company, FlightCentre USA, is uniquely positioned to open “billboard” stores because it can leverage a large commercial space to also house its other travel businesses, including FCm Travel Solutions, Travel Associates, Corporate Traveler, CiEvents and Stage and Screen.

Nonetheless, the opening of the store on Madison Avenue cheered even some non-Liberty storefront agency owners, and no small number of suppliers saw it as a vote of confidence for brick-and-mortar.

But if you think the opening of a splashy store means Liberty is digging in and doubling down on its long-held storefront-only strategy — to this day, its website doesn’t take bookings — you’re mistaken.

On Nov. 19, several weeks after its soft opening, Liberty held a private ribbon-cutting party at the new megastore. But on that same day, company officials told suppliers attending a partners conference that it was making a significant pivot in its channel strategy: It would soon be initiating a bricks-and-clicks strategy that would, for the first time, include online bookings.

If you’re a traditionalist, you could react with sadness that, even as it was unveiling the jewel of its brick-and-mortar crown, Liberty was throwing in the towel and accepting online booking. Or, if you embraced the Web early, you might simply think, “Welcome to 1996.”

But both reactions would be missing a bigger point. When I spoke that evening with Liberty President Emma Jupp, she said the company’s core beliefs were never tied to a conviction that brick-and-mortar retailing was superior to online but rather that human connections make for a better booking process and travel experience.

Liberty Travel Store OpeningYes, clients will be able to book on the new site “to shop the way they want to shop,” Jupp said, but the site is also designed to link potential customers with a travel adviser “at every opportunity.”

“Customers can research on the website and book 24/7 online, by phone, by chatting through the website,” she said. “But the site will also identify agents who are experts and who can work with the customer and help them complete that transaction.”

She described the strategy as a “blended travel agency model,” in which a client could go into a store, get information and book online or go to the website and find an expert who can complete the booking through a phone call or in a store.

“Research has shown that when you have a multichannel distribution, the spend is greater,” she said.

The combined approach was very well received by suppliers in attendance. Chris Resich, president of Diamond Head Vacations, Liberty’s ground handler in Hawaii, called the flagship store “a huge statement, like their advertisement every Sunday in the New York Times.” But he said he was also impressed by the “very viable” dual-channel strategy.

Kevin Froemming, president of Unique Vacations, the American marketing arm for Sandals Hotels & Resorts, said he believes the high-tech/high-touch strategy is “the way of the future,” and he noted that not only will customer service be incorporated into Liberty’s online experience, but that technology was front and center in the retail space, as well, with clients encouraged to do research on a table full of iPads.

“They’re investing in the right combination,” he said. “What Dean [Smith, executive general manager of FlightCentre USA]has realized is that you don’t have to fight technology, just incorporate service.”

Iberostar Hotels & Resorts Vice President of Sales and Marketing John Long likes both the new strategic direction and the retail location. He said he was going back to his Spanish company headquarters to make a presentation and would include photos of the new store. “Some of them think the travel agent is obsolete,” he said, “but this is awesome.”

And Jupp did not let the new online strategy overcome her pleasure with the new retail flagship concept. “To be able to create more of these is incredibly exciting,” she said. She told me that additional “travel centers” would likely open in Boston and Chicago, where Flight Centre has strong corporate travel sales.

She also said an important aspect of the large stores is that some of their concepts are, in a sense, modular and can be tested in smaller “community stores.”

“Perhaps there will be a flights desk, or maybe lifestyle zones, for destinations weddings or family travel,” she said.

High-tech/high-touch has been the long-elusive grail for travel sellers, who tend to lean heavily in one direction or the other. Early on, online travel agencies added the “touch,” in the form of call centers, somewhat reluctantly because introducing people into the equation clashed with their belief that technology could bring efficiency (and reduce costs) to selling travel.

Several of those sites have gone on to great success without bringing their level of touch anywhere near as high as their tech capabilities. It will be interesting to see if a touch-centric agency that was reluctant to embrace Web-based transactions can find comparable success after taking bookings online.

Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.


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