As Superbreak celebrates its 25th anniversary, Edward Robertson joins the domestic and short-break specialist for a round-table debate about changes in the trade over the last 25 years

From left: Nick Cust, Superbreak Mini-Holidays; Michael Bedingfield, VisitBritain; Marc Bennett, Thomas Cook; Stuart Leven, Guomon Hotels; Katherine Doyle, Bawtry Travel Worldchoice; Ian Mounser, Superbreak

What has been the single biggest change in the trade over the last 25 years?

Katherine Doyle, Bawtry Travel WorldchoiceBawtry Travel Worldchoice owner Katherine Doyle
The Internet, although I don’t think most travel agents realised the full impact initially. I saw it as a wonderful information tool and I still do, but the advent of consumers dynamically packaging their own holidays is the biggest challenge that’s affecting me.

Stuart Leven, Guoman HotelsGuoman Hotels sales and marketing director Stuart Leven:
Companies such as Direct Line insurance haven’t helped. The minute they bring in the word ‘direct’, the consumer assumes it’s 10% cheaper.

Marc Bennett, Thomas CookThomas Cook commercial relations director Marc Bennett:
We are in a slightly different situation because the heritage of the Thomas Cook business is built around high- street distribution. I agree the Internet puts pressure on us, but with a website, providing you can find the right balance, it really complements what you do.

Nick Cust, Superbreak Mini-HolidaysSuperbreak Mini-Holidays joint managing director Nick Cust:
If we had only ever had the Internet and someone invented a portable brochure that showed all the prices, it would be seen as a threat to the Internet. The Internet doesn’t stimulate the buying in the first place, it is just part of the buying process.

So the Internet hasn’t quite killed off traditional operator and agent structures?

Leven:  Businesses like Superbreak have a core competency of distribution and that’s what hotel companies like us need. If I’m a week away from Easter and the demand’s not there and it’s not going as it should, through people like Superbreak I can change my pricing instantaneously in front of 125,000 travel agents.

Doyle:  A couple of years ago we did away with our brochures in the shop and moved them upstairs. However, although you can download pages from the Internet, if you don’t give the client a brochure then they won’t be happy.

What are the strong points of UK tourism at the moment?

Michael Bedingfield, VisitBritainVisitBritain marketing director Michael Bedingfield:

London is just great. In the last year we’ve had Wembley reopen in the west and the O2 open up in the east. You also have the great exhibitions like Tutankhamun and the Chinese terracotta warriors meaning London is now the hottest city on the planet.

Leven:  One of the challenges we have for London is there are certain times of the year when London is full. As far as international visitors are concerned London is getting to the stage where it is beginning to overtake Moscow and New York price-wise. We may find London is far easier to market within the UK rather than overseas.

Do you think travel agents would be able to make enough domestic sales if the international market hits a turbulent patch?

Doyle:  There needs to be more on the agent side promoting the fact that they sell British holidays customers don’t realise they can come in and book for the UK with us and we’re now trying to promote that.

Bedingfield:  I think people are now seeing Europe as a really expensive destination if they live in Britain – that’s an opportunity to say there’s never been a better time to holiday in the UK.

Bennett: Thomas Cook’s first package was in the UK so I think there’s a fairly rich heritage for us there.

Do you think UK hotels and attractions can rival international destinations?

Leven:  When you look at London and how busy it is when you’re full the only way you can increase your profits is by increasing your price.

Cust:  Quality is vital now as there is no tangible value you can put on a brand. If you have a number of hotels, your brand is only as strong as your weakest hotel – there are brands that have been quite slow in realising this.

Doyle:  Customers are beginning to take these luxuries for granted – if they’ve had that experience of a hotel overseas then they expect it in the UK too.