Special Report: Atas Conference can help stimulate touring sector’s rebound

Samantha Mayling speaks to Brian Young and Claire Brighton ahead of the association’s showpiece event

Touring and adventure “will come back with a bang – and this conference will be our biggest yet”.

That’s the confident prediction of Brian Young, chair of the Association of Touring & Adventure Suppliers, who spoke to Travel Weekly ahead of the Atas Conference in Birmingham on October 19-20.

The association is expecting a record number of attendees, including more than 250 travel agents, along with operator members and associate members such as tourist boards. Young, who is also managing director of G Adventures, says operators have seen sales rising thanks to the easing of travel rules – and agents are set to benefit from positive trends in the touring and adventure market.

“People want experiences – touring and adventure holidays can offer authentic experiences, which help clients get under the skin of a destination and explore off the beaten track,” he says.

“From cooking classes to visits to social enterprises and zipline rides, there is a huge variety of experiences. “Consumers always want beach holidays but they cannot all do that for long – people want to be active; they’re inquisitive and kids want to do more. We’ll come out of this pandemic in a big way – people have realised that travel is special.”

He says G Adventures has managed to make bookings throughout the pandemic, thanks to repeat business from its loyal customer base.

“We have seen a lot of people booking bucket-list holidays, such as a family safari, and achievement-based holidays, such as climbing Mount Kilimanjaro,” he says, noting that lockdown restrictions meant consumers developed a fresh appreciation for being outdoors, walking and spotting wildlife.

He says searches have risen for aspirational holidays, such as walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain or the Inca Trail in Peru, and to Everest Base Camp, and now those searches are turning into bookings.

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Adapting to Covid-19

Like other operators, G Adventures had to adjust its products to adapt to the pandemic and try to understand the fast-changing needs of consumers – as well as develop protocols for issues such as social distancing, face masks and vaccine certificates.

“Atas members came together quickly; we operators were all in the same boat with the same challenges,” Young recalls. “Rather than come out with separate policies, it made sense to bring the policies together and look for commonality – and tell the trade Atas was doing this. It was really good to be singing from the same hymn sheet and it boosted confidence for customers and agents.”

Short-haul and domestic holidays were introduced by many operators, and Covid-19 policies were developed, such as rules about seating on coaches and ‘bubbles’ of family and friends on group tours. G Adventures introduced activity holidays such as hiking and trekking in Europe, showing clients a different side to mass-market hotspots such as Ibiza and Tenerife.

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Better understanding

Young says a platform such as Atas helps operators and tourist boards better understand each other’s needs.

He says Atas operators need to know about opportunities beyond the mass market – such as hiking trails in Madeira – while tourist boards welcome the chance for destinations to diversify their offering.

“Madeira is known in the UK for holidays that cater to the older demographic but in the US it is seen as an adventure playground,” he says.

Atas and its members also lobbied to tackle the problems caused by frequent changes to travel rules and the traffic light system as part of the Save Future Travel Coalition alongside groups such as Abta.

Another area of common interest among Atas members is sustainability, responsible tourism and the need to build back better, he adds. “We all have a greater focus now as we approach the COP26 climate change conference,” says Young.

He highlights the uneven distribution of vaccines around the world, and explains how G Adventures has been helping communities in destinations such as Peru to get tourism workers and their families inoculated.

All these topics and more will be on the agenda at next week’s conference, which aims to help agents capitalise on the surging demand – and growing reliance that consumers have on the trade. “Travel agents are inundated with customers wanting to travel – clients need to sort passenger locator forms and PCR tests, so it is daunting to plan,” says Young.

He points out how the agency community has always been eager to learn more about touring and adventure, even during the lockdowns that forced Atas to cancel its 2020 conference.

“We had a virtual conference during the pandemic and themed awareness months earlier this year and the interaction was phenomenal,” he says. “Atas is growing stronger. More members are joining. And agents are keen to learn about the sector as they can see there are such diverse products.

“The conference will get people really excited and inspired – they can learn about suppliers and products; get marketing and sales tips; and new agents can get the support they need to be successful in the sector.”

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Celebrating success

Claire Brighton, Atas account director, says: “The Atas team is really looking forward to meeting all conference delegates in person. “We have worked hard since March 2020 to keep agents, operators, tourist boards and other stakeholders in the touring and adventure sector in contact with each other – to liaise and learn about new rules and trends that emerged during the pandemic and to lobby with the rest of the travel industry.

“It has been an unprecedented challenge for the trade so we want this conference to celebrate the successes that we’ve seen and to help agents make the most of the recovery.

“Our theme is ‘Learn. Experience. Achieve.’ so there will be plenty of educational opportunities; chances to experience the excitement of a touring and adventure holiday; and lots of moments during networking and the trade fair that can lead to achieving more sales as the sector rebounds.”

Event schedule

The annual Atas showcase returns for real on October 19-20 with the theme of ‘Learn. Experience. Achieve.’

The venue is Birmingham’s International Convention Centre, which successfully hosted the conference in 2017 and 2018. The event opens with an evening reception on October 19, while October 20 will feature conference sessions, a trade fair and an evening of celebrations.

There will be an awards ceremony to recognise agents who have supported the sector with enthusiasm and dedication.

The conference is held in association with Travel Weekly Group and sessions will be moderated by editor-in-chief Lucy Huxley. The headline sponsors are Visit Portugal and travel technology specialist Tigerbay.

PICTURES: Steve Dunlop

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