Hoseasons chief executive Richard Carrick has pledged the tour operator’s long-term support to travel agents.
Despite the trend for consumers to book direct with holiday parks and cottage owners online, and the fact 50% of UK households now have broadband access, Carrick stressed the operator’s commitment to the trade at the Advantage conference.
“I cannot see a time when we would ever stop selling through agents. They are still a major source of business for us,” said Carrick, during a session on booking online chaired by Travolution editor Kevin May.
This is despite the operator’s decision to set up the website cottageholidaysdirect.co.uk as a result of rising numbers of
consumers searching online for individual cottages and holiday parks to see if it is cheaper to book direct instead of through Hoseasons.
“We have set this up because people think they are booking direct [with the cottage owners],” he said.
Carrick described the single biggest challenge of the last five years as that of integrating online and offline activity to transform the business from a traditional tour operator to its current model.
“It’s probably been the toughest five years that I have ever experienced in my career. I don’t think we know enough about how customers are booking at the present time and interacting with all these messages,” he said.
Traditionally, holiday brochures were the only tool used by tour operators to sell their products. This enabled them to plan their business in advance and calculate the cost per booking.
“You knew the timing and the consumer behaved in a predictable fashion. We forced them into behaving that way and you could budget for it precisely. You had a known return on investment,” said Carrick.
But changes in the market, in particular the arrival of no-frills flights since 2002, revolutionised the market. There are now nearly 90 million no-frills airline seats in the market and the majority are sold online, he added.
Carrick said travel companies now had to be “slaves to their websites” and constantly monitor site performance and availability.
The advice came as 63% of around 110 websites of Advantage members were rated as performing well by digital design specialist Click With Technology in a survey commissioned for the conference.
Advantage sales and marketing direector Colin O’Neill admitted the web was critical for members and said a scheme to offer white-label sites aimed to ensure all members had a web presence. “There is a small proportion that have no presence at all,” he said.
In conjunction with this the consortium is raising awareness of its brand and its main website. In November it is running a competition in Sainsbury’s magazine, which reaches four million consumers, and will drive traffic to its website to take part.