Kuoni’s group boss has insisted proactive UK travel agents remain important but admitted an increased inhouse focus by the multiples had forced it to seek more direct business.

Group chief executive Peter Rothwell partly blamed the tactics of his former company TUI Travel for the UK’s focus on direct sales.

He said: “To some extent we have to focus on direct sales. Thomas Cook and TUI have squeezed us from a distribution point of view quite hard over the past couple of years.

“I don’t blame them they want to feed their own businesses and we have to find alternatives [distribution channels]. Our shops are replacing the TUI and Thomas Cook business and making a statement about Kuoni and what kind of company we are.”

Kuoni’s own shop network is likely to expand to 10 or 12 branches nationally, he said. “It will be very small – nothing to frighten the travel trade.”

The operator will continue to work closely with independent agents that proactively sell its products, he added. “We have not taken away business from independent agents. We are working with people who want to work with us.”

He admitted UK online sales will rise this year as a result of the focus on late sales because of current booking trends.

Traditionally the business has relied heavily on early brochured bookings. Late sales made this month for April and May are between 10% and 50% up each week on last year. “We think we are taking market share,” he said.

The UK, which represents less than a fifth of group profits, has set up a specific unit to put together “attractive” late deals within 24 hours.

Rothwell believes the late booking trend could be permanent.”I don’t think it’s a business that will ever go away. The crisis we are going through teaches customers different customer behaviour. Everyone is looking for a deal. We need to provide them with the deals they are looking for.”