Shearings’ like-for-like bookings in the 10 weeks to March 11 are ahead of last year, the company announced today.

European coach holidays are seeing double-digit growth while demand for river cruises is increasing following the addition of two new ships to the fleet this year.

This is helping to consolidate the company’s position as a major operator in the expanding sector, with almost one in ten of all European river cruises booked in the UK being done so through the group.

The update came as the operator said a focus on choice and value for money helped drive record passenger numbers last year, with numbers up by 3.6% to more than one million.

Profit rose by 20% to £5.5 million on the back of a 1% rise in revenues to £195.7 million. Net debt was cut by £5.4 million to £9.7 million.

The Wigan-based group, which provides holidays and hotel breaks for the rapidly-expanding over 50s market, said its focus on providing value for money, quality holidays at a time of reduced household budgets was behind the growth.

The continued diversification of its domestic and overseas holiday offering – which spans from London theatre breaks to escorted tours and river cruises around Europe – was helping broaden the group’s appeal and attract new customers.

Passenger volumes were particularly strong at the value focused brands of National Holidays and Caledonian Travel.

Its “Showtime” entertainment-led short break programme continued to expand and more ‘event focused’ products were developed around the Queen’s Jubilee and a summer of sporting and cultural events.

Shearings’ 50-strong hotel portfolio, operating under the Bay and Coast & Country brands, sold almost 2 million bednights, increasing its occupancy rate to an annual average of 82%.

Facilities and rooms across the portfolio were further upgraded as part of a wider £3.6m investment programme.

The hotels refurbishment programme is being stepped up this year with further investment of £3.5 million in addition to £7 million in its coach fleet, funded by a new £11 million leasing agreement.

Chief executive Denis Wormwell said: “The group made good strategic progress in 2012 and delivered much improved financial results.

“By staying true to our promise of value for money, high quality holiday and hotel breaks, combined with breadth of choice, we were able to capture a greater share of the market and carry a record number of passengers last year. This has been supported by significant investment in our hotels, holiday product and coaches, which will continue in 2013.

“We are targeting a large and attractive market across a demographic that continues to expand.

“By combining a market leading position in escorted tours and a growing UK leisure hotel business, we’re confident we can continue to further improve performance in the coming year.”