I'VE BEEN in the tour operator business for the past 10 years and it has consistently proved to be a challenge. You have to be one step ahead because there are so many factors involved in the packaging of a holiday that are outside your control - hurricanes, for example. The unexpected adds a whole new dimension to running a business. You also have to be able to respond to your customers.
The biggest change in our industry over the years has been through consolidation, the significant improvement in the quality of holidays and the pricing can be put down to the healthy competition it encourages. In the face of all this competition, if you want to succeed you have to innovate and have an eye for something different. It also helps to have a great team. I think Airtours has an impressive team led by David Crossland and is the best in the business.
THE TRAVEL industry has changed enormously while I've been involved in it. More people travel these days; the business is more professional. Those who are now running the large companies have a different perspective on travel - the large companies now seem to be run by accountants rather than entrepreneurs. The industry is in danger of losing its touch.
The customer wants exceptional and personal service when choosing and booking holidays and the big companies don't appreciate that. You really need to concentrate 100 per cent on customer service and understand what people are looking for. Of those who are in the industry at the moment Roger Heape, managing director of British Airways Holidays. He has really been a guiding light to me. I admire his 100 per cent commitment to the business and to aspects beyond the business such as the effect of tourism on the environment.
THE BUSINESS has changed a lot in the 20 years I've been in it. As each year goes by, value for money gets better and standards and destinations are improving. The industry has become more responsible as a result of internal and consumer pressure.
We are trying to create a trend of brand loyalty - most travellers are still price led. What this means is that we have to create something that will differentiate our holidays from the others available. To do this you have to maintain a strong sense of creativity and keep an open mind as to the product you might offer.
The industry is full of characters, not faceless accountants, although some companies are moving in that direction. One pioneer in this generation has been David Crossland, chief executive at Airtours - a man who started as a little travel agent and now is running a multi-million pound business. He's gutsy and go-getting. There are fewer and fewer of these characters.
IT IS ironic that in many ways our industry hasn't changed over time - it has simply been condensed into fewer hands - four in particular. The mentality of selling holidays is still the same: stack them high and sell them cheap. Now the industry has reached saturation and profitability will return only with a large collapse.
Those four companies who control 80 per cent of the market have suffered a fall in their profit margins but the smaller, specialist independents remain more or less unaffected.
The large companies can't give what the people want so they are attempting to buy into the specialist market. To succeed in the travel industry, you need to be consistent and the British public knows it won't consistently find what it wants through the big companies.
So I am optimistic about the prospects of the independents. I don't admire anybody in any of the big name companies. I admire people who understand the niche market - Explore Worldwide, for example, has got it right. Simply Travel is also a competitor which developed a marketable niche product under the charge of Graham Simpson. It has now been bought up by Thomson but he's still there. He may be a competitor but he got it right and I admire that.
British Airways Holidays
IT IS a most exciting time to be in the travel business. The model has changed - something it hasn't done for 25 years. Now there are new opportunities and challenges springing up all over the place.
The advent of e-commerce and tailor-made holidays is providing new opportunities for development. On a downside, it is a huge challenge to manage the impact of tourism on the environment. We can't just legislate overnight to stop it, we have to take little steps to minimise its impact.
To lead the market, you need to understand the customer and respond to their needs, and try to anticipate their needs. You also have to deliver good quality and service. Thomson is doing good things in the industry - they consistently offer high quality. And David Crossland at Airtours has also been a great success.
Thomas Cook Holidays
THE CONSOLIDATION of the industry has provided a challenge to the big operators because it encouraged the small independents to work far more aggressively and in a more targeted manner. This provides stiff competition for us big companies. Just because we're at the top of the industry doesn't mean we are the best.
Making money in this industry is very hard: our margins are slim and our customers expect high standards. The challenge to provide these have to be met and even exceeded if possible. It is vital to deliver on your promises.
Airtours has done a remarkable job expanding and are a highly focused company. In general, if a company provides stiff competition, they deserve to be admired.
THE TRAVEL industry has changed a great deal during the 17 years I've been at Kuoni. We've expanded but so has the travel industry. Travel used to be the preserve of the wealthy few and now it is practically the norm. As a result we have more competitors. But that is ultimately a good thing because it keeps us on our toes. To succeed in the industry you need to do what you do well and care deeply about it. To say you need an interest in people and in places is probably stating the obvious, but the industry is all about people. To excel you have to be constantly looking for something that's better - change management I believe they call it these days.
I admire those people who manage to combine innovation professionalism and fun in their operations and I believe Mike Gooley managed to do this with Trailfinders by taking a simple idea - the backpacking holiday - and using innovation to create a very professional and very popular product.
THE INDUSTRY we're in is probably one of the most challenging of all service industries. We are held accountable for every aspect of customer satisfaction. And customer expectation has risen over the years since 1970, partly because of the increase in competition. To succeed you must work hard, take the business seriously and be obsessive about it.
It's also important to be totally honest with your customer staff and suppliers. You can't deliver customer satisfaction otherwise.
Trailfinders has only recently embarked on the tailor-made holiday and I think we stand apart from other tour operators in the way we put them together. We are alternative and don't set out to imitate the others. Also I'm not that familiar with them.
Airtours, obviously, under the aegis of David Crossland is massively successful but I think we lead our niche.