Outgoing head of sales and marketing says resort operator is intent on boosting trade bookings. Lee Hayhurst reports
Mark Warner is pursuing a “back to basics” approach to forging closer trade partnerships and helping agents increase their share of the operator’s business.
Speaking to Travel Weekly during his Mark Warner swansong last week, Tim Locke, head of sales and marketing, said he was excited about the prospects for trade sales this summer.
Locke delayed his departure to deliver the Advantage conference at the Sea Garden Resort, Bodrum, before leaving to run a new travel portfolio for the family that founded Tesco.
He said ski bookings had been behind this winter until the arrival of Julie Franklin from All Leisure Holidays as Mark Warner’s new agency sales manager.
“We ended up ahead,” said Locke. “That’s why I’m excited for the summer for the trade. We have to put in the groundwork.”
The beach and ski resort operator followed its hosting of Advantage’s annual overseas event by taking 19 agents on fam trips to its resorts in the region.
And back in the UK, Franklin is engaging more agents face-to-face, offering support and training. A push with ski specialists this year saw booking lead-in times increase by four weeks, said Locke.
“Last summer, the short-haul Mediterranean family market really took a kick. One day it just fell off a cliff. That’s every tour operator’s challenge.
“It’s certainly our strategy to mitigate that, to do everything we can to bring in early sales. That’s why it’s good to host the Advantage conference.”
Currently, the trade accounts for 17% of Mark Warner’s summer bookings and 25% of its ski sales. The operator wants to see the summer figure increase to match winter.
As well as face-to-face activity, the operator also intends to run webinars, having signed up to use the Citrix system, and one agent has already indicated it would like to offer this to its customers.
A priority for Mark Warner is to improve its online trade portal because it is “not getting enough business through the website”, and to introduce Mark Warner Expert training for agents.
“A lot of agents do want to book online,” said Locke. “You just have to set them up.” Mark Warner’s average booking value is higher online than through its call centre, added Locke.
All of Mark Warner’s technology is now being run by Tiger Bay, the Cardiff travel technology specialist, after a switch from rival Welsh provider Comtec.
The new technology platform has given the operator more flexibility. This will enable it to “de-risk” its charter flying and bring in more scheduled services – in recent summers it has used British Airways from Heathrow almost exclusively.
It has also allowed Mark Warner to exploit new markets.
The first of these is Ireland, where it has a deal with Sunway, which charters its own aircraft to Bodrum and Rhodes.
“At the moment we are quite reliant on one market. You have to have other sources of business if you are relying on the UK market in case it catches a cold,” Locke said.
Mark Warner has also set up a separate hotel operating division and accommodation-only is being sold through Booking.com.
“You cannot be 100% direct, you have to have at least 25-30% through the trade and you have to have other channels,” Locke said.
In recent years Mark Warner has been striving to improve the quality of its product – removing older properties and switching to BA flying are key planks of that.
Although it continues to review its product, Locke said there was no great rush to add more.
The operator is currently filling more than 90% of its charter flight seat allocations, but Locke says prices are not where they should be.
Turkey, host country of last week’s Advantage conference, is particularly challenging due to public perception about the connection with Islamic State and neighbouring Syria.
“It’s only agents who can address that,” said Locke.
“That’s why hosting this conference is so critical.”