To say May 2020 was not the easiest time to be taking over as the head of a national travel association would be a major understatement.
But the new chairman of the Association of Touring & Adventure Suppliers insists the sector is well-placed to bounce back from the crisis – and believes travel agent partners will play a key role in its recovery.
Brian Young, UK managing director of G Adventures, became the third Atas chairman this month, and will be supported in his new role by the association’s first dedicated account director, Claire Brighton, who joined from The Advantage Travel Partnership in March.
Since being founded by 12 operators in partnership with Travel Weekly in April 2017, Atas has expanded year on year and now has more than 50 supplier and associate members.
“Atas is still quite young, and its objectives in its early years have been establishing itself as an association and educating agents about the opportunities available to them,” Young explains.
“A lot has been achieved in a relatively short space of time, including three very successful agent conferences, but we now need to move to the next level.”
Young says the coronavirus crisis has identified the need for the sector to have a stronger single voice with regulatory bodies and other trade associations.
But he insists the education of its community of travel agents will still be at the heart of the association’s role as the travel trade adjusts to the post-pandemic ‘new normal’.
“Education remains central to our activities, but we also need to assess how we can become a stronger voice for our members, which range from large to small operators and reflect the breadth of the touring and adventure sector,” he says.
“If you look at the combined business of our members and the number of passengers carried, the touring and adventure sector is a significant one, but it is also incredibly diverse so we need to focus on the issues and needs that unite us.”
Young believes agents have a strong future in the wake of the coronavirus crisis and hopes that those engaging with Atas can forge even more beneficial partnerships with members.
“Suppliers are going to need to work with travel agents and support them as they get their businesses up and running to grow their mutual businesses,” he says.
“Agents are also going to need support, particularly on the marketing front, to engage with their customers and explain what the industry will look like in the future.
“We need to ensure the structure of Atas is working for our members and our travel agents, and that we are giving them everything they need to emerge from this crisis together as a single community.”
Young says plans include giving agents a greater voice in the running of the association, including on dedicated trade steering committees.
“Agents have to be a big part of the process and we will step up that agent representation so they can help us move forward,” he says.
“We can create content and put on events and our conference, but we need to ensure that content is what the agents need so it makes perfect sense to get the audience to tell us what they require from us.”
Young adds: “The membership of Atas is reflective of the sector as a whole but I think there is an opportunity to round out our education process in terms of product and topics.
“I would like to see more destinations involved to give a broader and more immersive learning experience, and I would also envisage an increased focus on sustainability, which is a topic that is really important to a lot of our members.”
Ready for the future
Young acknowledges that the future is far from certain for the entire travel industry but says the nature of touring and adventure holidays, plus the engagement of suppliers and agents with their customers, mean the sector is well-placed to recover.
“Every operator will be looking at how their product will change based on the requirements placed on us, and Atas can play a role in that by developing best practice and discussing areas common to members,” he explains.
“On a broader note, I know a lot of members have been pleased by the reaction of customers who have chosen to rebook or are happy to take their time to consider their plans.”
He adds: “There’s a lot of difference between a typical package holiday and a touring holiday in terms of the planning and emotional investment from the customer and their desire to experience a destination and its culture.
“They have made that investment with their travel agent and the tour operator, and that investment in taking that holiday will be key, as we’re seeing with the rebookings.
“Nobody knows what the future holds, but we want to be there and ready for our customers when they are able to travel again.”