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Temperance and the travel agent

29 April, 2019

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There is a rather delectable irony in the knowledge that both the package holiday and travel agent industries were born out of teetotalism. Even today, as the taste for mass sangria-soaked excursions to the Mediterranean appears to be on the wane, it is a far cry from the vision of one Thomas Cook who, in 1841, escorted a group of temperance supporters on a train journey from Leicester to Loughborough. Having struck a deal with the Midland Railway, he and his 500 fellow passengers travelled the twelve miles and back for a shilling (Cook himself taking a small fee) and thereby presaging the rise of the travel agent. It included a - presumably dry - lunch.

By 1845 Cook had arranged for 165,000 people to travel in a single year. This with just paper and pen from a small office in London's Fleet Street. This process of manually completing reservations for travel was still occurring as late as the 1950s when airline seat reservations were made by a group of people gathered around a Lazy Susan, spending up to three hours ensuring a traveller could board their flight of choice.

It was the search for a solution to this problem that would produce the technology which would, in turn, spawn an industry that would arguably surpass the importance of the travel agent. Early attempts to thwart the technological stasis failed, even with the introduction of such terrifyingly-named machines as the Magnetronic Reservisor, with its convoluted series of electromechanical vacuum tubes and magnetic storage drums. In fact it wasn't until the advent of corporate computerisation that the answer would be uncovered.

Although it's unlikely that the majority of travellers would have heard of it, underpinning much of the modern travel experience are IT companies who fall under the banner of ‘Global Distribution System' or GDS. Companies such as Amadeus process up to one billion transactions per day as they connect agents and travellers with real-time content from airlines to car hire firms and hotels to railway operators.

Now, in a matter of seconds and from thousands of possible permutations, an entire trip from flight to accommodation can be located and booked. Unsurprisingly this immediacy of information – coupled with the rise of low-cost carriers – has meant that travel has become commoditised beyond recognition from its more humble beginnings.

The technology that GDS companies utilise is now a necessity. Global passenger numbers continue to grow at an extraordinary rate. China alone is expected to produce 260 million outbound trips by 2025 (double that of 2017). Consider too that only 10% of the Chinese population has a passport and estimates suggest that 100 million more will be added over the next 5 years, roughly the population of the UK and Spain combined for perspective. The digital innovation required to support this considerable growth in volume is where technology is now focussed.

The age of the travel agent is not over however. Although now predominately online, they still account for a large percentage of travel bookings and continue to serve the purposes first demonstrated by Mr Cook. Certainly the needs of travellers remain broadly the same: simplicity, value for money, and maybe some sustenance along the way.

But perhaps Cook and his fellow teetotallers will have the last laugh. 2018 may be known as the year that the infamously alcohol-fuelled 'Club 18-30' package holiday franchise - so successful in the 80s and 90s until being bought out by who else, but the Thomas Cook Group – finally came to an end. As a Temperance song of Cook's time went: 'We'll win the day, yes come what may, till the victory's completion.'

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