After more than 50 years in the travel industry, Pat Dawson, the retiring CEO of the Irish Travel Agents’ Association, believes that the role of the travel agent isn’t going anywhere. Dawson recalls a time when everything in the travel industry was handwritten, and tickets came in a big perforated roll of thousands, which were then pulled off. Piles of paperwork were then painstakingly compiled into actual wallets, which were handed to passengers. This was the pre-internet travel industry.
Dawson’s first foray into travel was at Carlow Regional College, where he set up a USIT office issuing J1 visas. He then joined Joe Walsh Tours in the 1970s, where he rose through the ranks when package holidays were bringing the first affordable sun holidays to the masses. Dawson also sold Lourdes pilgrimages. When he opened Dawson Travel in 1991, Ryanair had billed itself as ‘Europe’s first low-cost airline’, but with no website and just a handful of planes.
Dawson agrees that our era of budget airlines and ancillary charges has since brought travel to the masses, but the “from price” mindset continues to irritate him. “People have a bigger choice, yes. The early first 10 seats are at appealing prices. But if you leave it late, Spain can cost you €500-€600.” As Dawson departs, prices feel higher than ever. In part, he puts that down to Covid, the ramifications of which will surely ripple through travel for years.
“It was an awful, awful time,” he says. “Not alone were we losing people, but we were losing companies and jobs.” But things would have been far worse without government supports, he adds. The travel industry has to “pay respect” for those. Foot and mouth, 9/11 and the Icelandic ash cloud, when he had two charters of Munster supporters in France, were just three other crises that Dawson experienced in his career.
However, he is philosophical about that: “It could be a banking crisis, diseases, airline chaos, warfare… everything affects travel.” Of course, there were many great moments too. In 2015, Dawson was awarded the Medal of the Order of Civil Merit at the behest of His Majesty King Felipe VI of Spain, for his work towards strengthening relations between Ireland and Spain, particularly in the area of tourism.
Pat wraps up his last week’s work in a world now absorbing AI, but he reckons that travel agents like him will be around for some time to come, be it for corporate or specialist travel, high-budget trips, or simple expertise. “I think people want a bit of care. They want a bit of advice… There’s still a cohort that want to be on the phone and talk to human beings.” The industry has certainly changed dramatically, but they will always be there.