Aito operators and agents say they are facing one of their toughest and most unpredictable years to date.

Beachcomber Tours UK sales manager Sarah Archer told delegates at this year’s joint Aito agents and operators conference in Madeira that the company had enjoyed its most profitable year in 2009-2010. 

However, she said: “2011-2012 will be the most difficult year we have faced in our 22 years of trading. The family market is suffering; they can’t really afford to fly because the cost of the air tax is more than the fare. People are sacrificing holidays to go away once a year rather than twice.”

But the company is refusing to discount its rates  because it tended to attract the wrong type of clients who often could not afford the holiday once in resort, she said. “You then have clients who don’t expect wine to cost £15 a glass whereas five-star holidaymakers are used to paying that,” she said.

Tour operator Explore said there was a clear shift towards “better value destinations” while Expert Africa said it was having to focus on overseas markets to make up for losses in its UK sales.

Managing director Chris McIntyre said: “While our UK market is definitely down, our overseas market has more than made up for that. Last year 25% of turnover was from clients not resident in the UK; the year before it was 17% and six or seven years ago it was 5%-6%. Of that 25%, 50% is from north America.”

Travel agents reported that clients wanted better value and shorter duration holidays. Haslemere Travel managing director Gemma Antrobus said: “It depends on the level of the market you are in but we are finding if clients are familes they want shorter durations and they are looking for value for money such as all-inclusive holidays.”

Travel agency owner Barry Moxley added: “It’s difficult to predict what is happening and what is going to happen next year. If you look at your branches, some are 20% up and some are 20% down. We are constantly looking at our business and things we have taken for granted in the past.”

Moxley runs Traveltime, a seven-branch agency with an annual turnover of £8 million. “We thought we going to have an improvement this year based on the forecasts but of course we have not seen any growth.  Our business is now where we were at the same time last year,” he added.