The Association of Independent Tour Operators held its annual conference last weekend. Juliet Dennis reports from Malta

Tour operators are feeling more confident about their businesses following a good summer and strong forward bookings for next summer.

Companies attending the Aito conference in Malta said they were “very optimistic” about next year, a sentiment matched by a forecast by financial investment company Bestinvest that 
2014 would be 
“an economic bright spot”.

Fiona Marshall, general manager of adventure travel specialist KE Adventure Travel, said: “It is the most optimistic I have felt about our business in five years. It’s creating economic confidence.”

The recession had forced KE Adventure Travel to become “leaner and meaner”, she added, and widen its product range to appeal to a broader market.

Aito chairman Derek Moore said: “There’s a mood of optimism among delegates. It’s the most buoyant mood since 2008.”

Sunvil chairman Noel Josephides said: “Forward bookings for 2014 are looking very good. Stability seems to be coming back in the currencies, in the UK economy, and everyone can plan and work steadily.”

But he added: “For Sunvil, we have to move forward by taking greater risk. We have to take [charter] a whole aircraft to differentiate what we do.”

Operators admitted winter-sun holidays were not particularly strong, suggesting consumers were not yet ready to take more than 
one main holiday a year.

Classic Collection head of marketing Vanda Bauer said: “If winter doesn’t pick up a bit now that we are into the lates market, we might end up with less business than last year. The Foreign Office advice on Egypt being lifted makes a big difference: that will save us this winter.”

Classic Collection claimed it had enjoyed its best summer ever, with bookings up 11% on last year, and sales for next summer already up 18% year on year. But Bauer warned that an improved economy would mean more competition for existing operators.

“There will be more entrants to the market,” she said.

Andante boss highlights value of advice

Having corporate advisers and solicitors you can trust is vital when acquiring a new business, according to the new chief executive of Andante Travels.

Ian Finlay, former managing director of Tui Travel’s education division, bought the direct-sell archaeological tours operator in April from former owner Annabel Lawson, in a process that took 15 months.

The company is now on the acquisition trail for new specialist companies.

Speaking at the conference, Finlay advised members interested in acquiring businesses to find advisers with travel expertise.

“The key is having corporate advisers and solicitors early on in the process that you trust and can delegate responsibility to.”

Finlay, who oversaw scores of acquisitions during his time at Tui Travel, is now in talks with five companies with a view to completing two acquisitions by next Easter. He plans to acquire specialists that match the interests of existing Andante clients. These include cultural, architectural, walking, art history, wildlife and music tours.

Finlay said he was happy to work with agents. “I am open to working with agents if we fit their customer profile.”

Service ‘will become key’ as PTD changes

Aito and Abta members will have to compete more effectively on service in future because they will no longer be able to use the badge of financial protection as a point of differentiation.

Proposed changes to the Package Travel Directive, which seek to expand the remit of protection, are expected to come into force by 2017 and will effectively level the playing field between all suppliers.

Abta’s head of financial protection John de Vial told Aito delegates: “Most tour operators want to see online travel agents and airlines having the same costs and responsibilities but, on the other side of the coin, these companies will be able to present the same protection.

“One of the important strategic challenges for Abta and Aito members is that the marketing differences on these issues will diminish.”