Maria Whiteman, recently appointed MD of the over-50s specialist, tells Juliet Dennis she plans to work more closely with agents but admits the operator needs to educate the trade further

Saga Holidays’ Maria Whiteman likes a challenge. But even she admits the operator’s targets are ambitious, including one of the hardest challenges of all: changing consumer and trade perceptions of an established brand.

Saga began selling through the trade two years ago and is well‑known as a brand for the older market. But even customers in the right demographic often consider Saga “too old” for them, according to Whiteman.

“Our biggest challenge is around brand and people thinking they are too young to travel with Saga,” she says. “Our average customer is in their early 70s, although the product is for over-50s. We need to attract younger customers.”

Saga is one year into a five-year growth plan that requires “huge change in product and delivery”, including closer partnerships with the “right” agents.

“The trade is a key part of the growth plan,” says Whiteman, whose own track record includes stints at Directline Holidays, Travel 2 and Amadeus.

Trade sales

Since the trade began selling Saga in 2014, the operator has enjoyed a considerable boost in new customers – more than 60% of trade bookings are “first-timers”.

Agent sales have grown by “double-digit” percentages annually, albeit off a small base, and now account for just shy of 10% of business. The on-the-road sales team doubled from three to six earlier this year and a trade website is due to launch by Christmas that will become bookable in 2017.

Whiteman has set a 15% target for trade sales in the next five years and 20% in the longer term.

“The numbers are very feasible through the trade,” she says.

“The challenge is educating consultants, particularly younger ones [about the product]. We are looking at fam trips, and have been doing a lot of agent conferences.”

For Whiteman, the key is to work well with productive agents.

She adds: “There are a few gaps to fill in distribution but we have got deals with all major consortia. It’s about making sure we work more closely with the right agents.

“Most of our customers are down south; that’s why we’re looking at the northwest, Scotland and southwest [for more trade sales].”

Fresh product

The key to attracing younger clients is changing the product, according to Whiteman.

“With our traditional product, people think of hotels where they are surrounded by [other] old people,” she says.

Already the operator has begun to contract smaller hotels, introduce smaller group tours and expand its long-haul range. Nearly half of Saga’s business is to Europe. Brochures out in January will offer an expanded product range in Sri Lanka, Mexico and the Caribbean.

“We will still keep our core product, but we will have smaller, more upmarket hotels, and more concierge services. Reps will cover more hotels.”

She adds: “We are trying to put more-inspiring, authentic product in front of customers.”

Online onus

New product will be backed by investment to increase online bookings. Currently, about 10% of sales are made online, while around 20% start online but are booked over the phone.

Whiteman said: “One of my top priorities is to drive sales through the website. We want a quarter of bookings to be online by 2122. It’s ambitious, but there’s not been that much focus on it in the past.”

Part of this will be achieved by an investment in online analytics to track customers’ research and bookings online and produce more‑personalised offers to increase conversions.

This will be supported by smaller and targeted mailings to customers and more brand advertising to appeal to younger holidaymakers.

But Whiteman is realistic. She says: “We don’t believe we will suddenly get loads of 50-year-olds booking, but even if we could get more 60-year-olds….”