The Italy experts: Inside a prize-winning travel agency

Stephen Shaw and Mark Mitchell of Italy Tourist Board competition winner Affinion Travel
L-R: Stephen Shaw and Mark Mitchell of Italian Tourist Board competition winner Affinion Travel

Agents at Kettering call centre Affinion Travel are living la dolce vita after winning a competition organised by the Italian tourist board. The agency bagged the £15,000 first prize by making the most Italian bookings in five months.

The tourist board launched the competition in Travel Weekly in December last year and agents battled it out from January until the end of May, with Howard Travel of Trowbridge coming in second, and Manchester’s Aspen Travel taking third place. However, neither could beat the 254 bookings made by Affinion Travel.

“We’ll invest some of the money in training and improving our agents’ knowledge, but we want them to enjoy the prize too,” says Mark Mitchell, commercial and product director. “They put so much effort into the incentive, so we’re going to say thank you with some drinks at our next party.”


Mark explains that customers’ strong sense of Italy and what it has to offer makes it an easy sell. “Clients know before they call that they want to go to Italy, and what they want to do there.

“It’s tried and tested as a tourist destination. Suppliers and resorts are so used to welcoming holidaymakers from all over the world that everything is very straightforward and easy.”

Those going to Italy are rarely just looking for sun; they’re attracted by the cuisine, the history and the lifestyle. There’s a romance to Italy and a strong destination identity that keeps clients wedded to the country and unlikely to be easily cross-sold a different one.


And there’s no need to cross-sell – Italy is such a diverse country that clients can find almost anything they want there. “Italy is full of great cities,” says Stephen Shaw, Affinion travel advisor and Italy expert.

“Rome is one of the world’s ultimate city-break destinations. The coastal resorts and the Italian Lakes are really popular too, for longer summer holidays. Coach touring holidays allow clients to visit a number of places easily and conveniently.

“Villa holidays in rural areas are great for relaxing breaks, but there’s also a well-developed ski market. Niche markets are catered for too – we see a lot of sports trips, with groups heading to Milan or Rome to watch the football, or rugby tours for the Six Nations.

“Cruises of the Adriatic or Mediterranean often stop at Venice or Rome, and clients who get a taster of these cities often want to return for a longer stay.”


“As with any other country with the euro, the exchange rate has been a challenge for British visitors to Italy,” Mark says.

But he feels Italy is less affected than some other eurozone destinations with weaker identities and more obvious alternatives outside the single currency. It comes back to the fact that clients have chosen Italy, and so they will go whether it is the cheapest option or not.

“It’s also a myth that Italy has to be expensive,” Stephen says. “Venice, Florence and Rome will be more expensive than a beach resort in Majorca, but then so is London. Parts of Italy are cheaper than other Mediterranean destinations. The south of Italy and its rural areas can be cheaper than rural Spain or Greece.”

Tuscan town


Italy’s proximity and ease of access are another reason for its appeal, Stephen says. “There are regional flights from around the UK into the different Italian regions. It’s easy to be flexible and add extra days on to a tour to visit a city or the coast.

“The public transport links between cities are excellent too. A high-speed rail network connects the major cities, and the roads are good too. We advise customers to hire a car so they can see a bit of the country. It’s a good place to encourage people to be a bit courageous and have an adventure.”

The full range

Mark puts down some of Affinion’s success to working with a wide variety of suppliers. “You need to offer customers the full range. We use the mainstream – Thomas Cook, Thomson, First Choice – but also specialists such as Citalia, Sardatur, Crystal and Cresta. It brings real diversity and by working with all of them we can give people exactly what they want.”


“I’ve been working at Affinion for nine months, and have added to my own experience-based knowledge of Italy in that time,” Stephen says.

“The Italian tourist board has a training programme at, and I completed all the modules. I’ve been to a few Italian cities, but the online training really helped with learning about the coastal resorts.”

Second-time suggestions

Affinion’s Stephen Shaw recommends some follow-up trips for those who fell in love with Italy first time around…

After Rome or Venice: “Florence, Siena and Naples, with its proximity to Vesuvius and Pompeii, make great city-break destinations.”

After the Amalfi Coast: “There are some lovely beach resorts in Sardinia. It’s an area clients often overlook – not all of them even know it’s part of Italy – but it’s a stunning island.”

After Tuscany: “Suggest Lake Garda or Lake Como. The scenery is beautiful and the towns picturesque, but there’s also lots to do in the way of activities like hiking, biking and water sports.”

Sample product

Cresta offers three nights for the price of two at the four-star Ai Mori d’Oriente in Venice from £199 on a B&B basis. Flights are with BA from Heathrow for selected departures between November 2 and December 20. Book by August 31. 0844 800 7019,
Insight Vacations’ 10-day Best Of Italy tour starts from £1,735 and visits Rome, Florence, Sorrento, Capri, Venice and Assisi. Many tours and excursions are included, plus all breakfasts and some dinners, but flights are not. 020 7468 4335,

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