A growing number of agents are making touring bookings for the first time, according to supplier members of the Association of Touring & Adventure Suppliers.
A range of members said they had received enquiries and made bookings through new agents in the peaks period, establishing broader relationships within the trade.
Janet Parton, sales director at Cosmos, said: “We are seeing a lot of new Abta numbers in our booking data, which shows that more agents are recognising the opportunities on offer from the touring sector.
“We make sure we make personal contact with all new agents to build on those first sales.”
Rachel Coffey, sales director at G Adventures, said the operator was seeing particular growth through home-based agents.
“Some agents don’t necessarily see themselves taking a touring or adventure holiday, so they don’t necessarily find it easy to sell to their customers,” she said.
“As the understanding of the sector grows, we see that translating into business through more agents, and for us that is particularly coming from homeworkers.”
Members agreed there was still a lot of work to be done to educate agents on the scale of the touring and adventure sector, but they were encouraged by the numbers who were starting to embrace it as a core part of their businesses.
Sarah Weetman, head of trade sales for G Touring brands Travelsphere and Just You, said: “Touring suppliers have really upped their game. Agents really want to know what each operator is offering, and that is allowing them to sell with more confidence.
“A great example is Lincolnshire Co-op, which turned its cruise show into a cruise and touring show as it recognises the opportunities in the sector.”
Andrew Turner, head of industry sales at Intrepid Travel, said: “We have changed our approach to marketing for independent agents and we’ve seen the best agent engagement we’ve ever had. Traditionally we would have focused purely on the tour element, but now we are including flights and pre and post-tour elements to create a clearly priced flight-inclusive offer.”
He added: “Some agents stick rigidly to their core products, so we’re encouraging them to look beyond that and saying ‘at the moment you’re purely a cruise agent, but you could be a cruise and touring agent and you could be earning a lot more’.”
"We've changed our marketing and seen the best agent engagement ever"
Suppliers said they were largely encouraged by early 2019 trading, with little sign of a Brexit impact.
Simon Lynch, sales director at Abercrombie & Kent, said: “We are really pleased with how our escorted touring product is selling. Normally we would see tailor made outperforming touring at this time of year, but it is the other way round.”
Wendy Missenden, UK marketing manager at Collette, added: “We’ve seen an increase in average booking values, which is really encouraging. There’s a demand for higher-value, longer-duration itineraries, and we’re seeing some of our less mainstream tours becoming more popular.”
Members said added value and low deposit offers were helping to stimulate business, but that general concerns over consumer confidence and spending in the run-up to Brexit had not forced them to increase discounts or offers.
Lockie Kerr, sales manager at Back-Roads Touring, said: “We don’t focus heavily on offers, but we have introduced a small 5% trade exclusive offer that has allowed agents to effectively undercut our direct prices, and that has been really well-received.”
Despite the overall positivity, most members agreed that a trend for the first part of the year was that there was ‘no pattern’ to bookings.
Parton said: “Overall we are up year on year, but we might have one record day followed by a much slower one.”
Lynch added: “It is positive but inconsistent. We’ve had times where we’ve staffed up on weekends and been slower than expected, but then we’ll have a Wednesday that goes through the roof for no obvious reason.”
“We've introduced a 5% trade exclusive offer that allows agents to undercut us direct”
The Middle East and Asia are leading growth for many operators, although both Back Roads Touring and Titan Travel said interest in UK tours was also increasing.
Trending destinations identified by members included Jordan and Sri Lanka, with China and particularly Japan driving growth for many suppliers.
Edwina Coppock, head of trade sales at Titan, said: “We are having a great start to peaks with trade sales remaining at record highs.
“Long-haul is doing very well for us with India, Japan and the US in our top sellers.”
Coffey said: “We are seeing triple-digit growth for the Middle East, which is being led by Jordan and Egypt, but Japan is definitely a hot destination and that will be helped further with British Airways going back to Osaka.”
Parton said Europe and particularly Italy was showing strongest growth for consumer bookings, but said the US was Cosmos’s fastest-growing destination for the trade.
She said: “It’s quite unusual to see a discrepancy between our trade and consumer trends, but the trade is responding really well to upgrade messages for the US and [transatlantic] airfares generally are really good at the moment.”
Both Travelsphere/Just You and Abercrombie & Kent said bookings from solo travellers were increasing, with Abercrombie & Kent’s Lynch saying: “Solos are absolutely flying.”
Titan’s Coppock said advance bookings were also performing well, with sales for 2020 “particularly strong”.