Aito creates working group to attract broader range of indie agents

Aito has created a working group to attract a broader range of independents and improve relations between agent and operator members.

The Specialist Travel Association (Aito) currently has about 60 Specialist Travel Agents and represents 120 operator brands.

The group, called Aito Synergy, was set up in July and meets monthly. One of its aims is to make Aito more attractive to a broader range of independent agents.

Exsus head of trade sales Neil Sealy, who sits on the group, said: “It may mean we re-evaluate the type of agents we take into Aito and open it up more. We are looking at how to make Aito more accessible, potentially to homeworkers.”

He added: “Aito has shown it can be good at lobbying in the pandemic; with bigger [member] numbers, that strength increases.”

The All Stars Scheme, which recognises Aito Agents for supporting Aito operators, is also under review. “We may revive it in the same or a different form,” said Sealy.

The group is also reviewing ways to improve further the relationship between Aito agents and operators.

It comes as Ian Prior, managing director, Westway Travel, called for Aito operators to treat Aito agents in the same way as their customers to encourage closer ties.

Speaking at the Aito Annual Conference, he said: “As tour operators you need to understand that we are your customers and you need to work with us much closer. Give us better quality information and have better conversations with us on the phone; we will pass on that information to clients.”

Experience Travel Group managing director Sam Clark agreed “thinking about agents as the end customer” had led to better results for the operator.

He said: “That has worked well for us. Agents need the right information and we need to work together to amaze the client and take the internet out of the equation.”

The operator is already joining some Zoom calls to go through itineraries and provide more information to clients of agency partners, he said.

“We do it with several of our agent partners but some won’t do it,” said Clark, who added that operators had to help agents to get the “client’s love” and establish the value of booking through that channel.

However, some operators said they had been rebuffed by agents when they had attempted to work with them more closely. “We have often found agents are possessive of their customers,” said Amrit Singh, managing director, TransIndus, who called for a more symbiotic relationship of respect between the two groups.

Chairman Chris Rowles said he too was keen for Aito agents and operators to work more closely.

He said: “Agents and operators are working together in the Synergy group to look at the relationship between them.

“Agents have been part of Aito for 15 years; it’s time to move that relationship on. I’d love every operator to try working with agents.”

He admitted some Aito operators had been wary of working with agents in the past, adding: “It does need a mindset change. Overall, the relationship has improved in the last five years but it could be improved.”

Rowles is confident Aito will attract more agents once the financial constraints of the pandemic subside and that it will swell its operator ranks thanks to “punching above its weight during the pandemic”.

Aito has lost only four members in the pandemic. Two wound down their businesses and two – Oasis Overland and Tucan Travel – failed.

“It’s remarkable more have not failed,” Rowles said.

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