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Travel companies look overseas

HOGG Robinson, the travel company, revealed on Friday that it is buying 51 per cent of its Canadian partner, The Rider Travel Corp. This comes hard on the heels of Airtours' purchase last week of a holding in the German package tour operator Frosch Touristik.

Both acquisitions highlight the race between UK travel companies for a bigger share of the international market. German companies, such as TUI, have long expanded across frontiers, but only now are UK operators catching up.

Airtours and Thomson Travel Group already account for about 65 per cent of Scandinavian package tour sales. Manchester-based Airtours' 29 per cent stake in Frosch, and option to buy the remainder, now puts it ahead of its newly listed rival in Europe's largest economy. UK companies "have realised they can't stay in their own markets, and can apply their skills elsewhere," said Nigel Hicks, an analyst at Credit Suisse First Boston.

Europe's travel industry is growing at a rate of about 4 per cent a year, with some parts, like the cruise industry, growing considerably faster. Still, the UK is a mature market where earnings can suddenly slump when companies are forced to sell off excess capacity cheaply.

William Barney, a director in KPMG's consultancy division, said: "The UK market can sometimes find itself overbought and ... the availability of capital makes [overseas] acquisitions possible."

Airtours, the largest tour operator, operates in the UK, France, Scandinavia, Belgium, Holland, Canada, the United States, and Italy. Market leader, Thomson Travel, trades from Ireland and Scandinavia, where in February it acquired package tour operator Fritidsresor. "Medium-term, we'll be looking at acquisition in the UK, Benelux, and Switzerland - and at UK self-catering holidays," said Paul Brett, Thomson Travel chief executive.

British companies could well take a bigger slice of the European pie because the largest are "vertically integrated", owning or controlling travel agents and charter airlines as well as tour operators. The top five, which also include First Choice, Thomas Cook Ltd, and Carlson Leisure Group (UK) Ltd, the British subsidiary of US-based Carlson Companies, account for more than 70 per cent of package holidays, according to market research group Mintel.

Tough price competition in Germany and other European markets is weighing on smaller companies and forcing consolidation, highlighted by the recent merger of Deutsche Lufthansa's charter airline with Karstadt's package tour unit to create C&N Touristic. "We expect consolidation, greater cross border co- operation and vertical integration," said Renata Drinkwater, a partner in the hospitality and leisure unit of Ernst & Young.

UK companies are not the only ones vying for European dominance. Switzerland's largest travel company, Kuoni Reisen AG, for instance, is thought to be looking at further opportunities in Germany after its purchase of Euro- Lloyd Reisebuero travel agency from C&N. And operators like C&N and TUI will almost certainly expand outside Germany or forge partnerships to boost earnings at home.

But British horizons extend beyond Europe. Airtours is tipped to expand in the US, and this week First Choice acquired the tour operating unit of Royal Aviation in Canada for pounds 1m.

The North American market is more problematic than Europe, however, tending to be dominated by scheduled airlines with shorter breaks. Analysts don't rule out mergers and acquisitions between UK companies.

"In the UK the market has been fairly steady," said Bruce Jones, an analyst at Merrill Lynch. "But there must be questions about what will happen to Thomas Cook and whether Carlson will keep Inspirations."