Focus: How to get to the beach before the Germans: buy the hotel

The people who run Thomson holidays are so confident they know what we want that they are buying it in bulk. And it's definitely not 'basic'

This is one of the busiest holiday weekends of the year, but in the trade they are not hanging about congratulating themselves on a particularly good summer. They are selling 1998 (and doing very well already), and thinking 1999, which means the trends for the end of the century are no longer guesswork: Turkey is on the way up; Greece is fighting back; the Dominican Republic is bigger than Florida; but Spain, with its vice- like grip on the British psyche, will remain far and away the market leader.

This summer's business is not forgotten, however. Demand is so far out- stripping supply that at least one operator, Airtours, is warning that for August, prices on unsold, last-minute holidays will go up by pounds 20 per person. Consumer expectations, as well, are higher than ever, and feedback from holidaymakers to tour operators now makes the travel business richly rewarding of success, and wholly unforgiving of failure.

Take the Olive Grove Apartments at Kassiopi on Corfu. According to page 529 of the Thomson Summer Sun brochure for 1998, they are "traditionally furnished basic apartments" offering "an inviting pool, a lush green setting and privacy" and a "good comfortable home base". The picture shows a typically white-washed building set among flowers and trees.

To stay there will cost an adult guest pounds 409, including the flight, for 14 nights in high season, pounds 215 in low season - except there will be no Thomson holidaymakers staying there at all next summer, since Thomson has removed Olive Grove from its schedule.

In a Thomson's questionnaire, only 25 per cent of customers rated the accommodation "good or excellent". Since the Olive Grove is too traditionally furnished and too basic for the modern British holidaymaker, it has become a victim of the high standards that British tourists expect from abroad - standards superior to what is considered tolerable in much more expensive hotels here at home.

AT THE exotic former cigarette factory turned sprawling office building at Mornington Crescent not far north of Euston station, Thomson, Britain's biggest holiday operator, now publishes holiday brochures in several editions, which allows for quick and brutal deletions. Each entry carries its "good or excellent" customer rating, and Olive Grove's was so low that Thomson did not wait for a second edition to make the deletion. David Burling, Thomson's short-haul marketing chief, has simply stopped selling the apartments.

By contrast, page 288 in the same brochure describes what British holidaymakers require now. The Hotel Los Gigantes in Tenerife scores 100 per cent from customers in each category: overall holiday, accommodation, location and food. Not many hotels in a British guide can match its four stars, two swimming pools, tennis, squash and badminton, a hairdresser and beauty salon, massage and sauna and - perhaps the only flaw - professional entertainers flown in from Britain twice weekly. The restaurants serve local specialities, roast meats and vegetarian meals. The rooms - and some suites - are decorated in tasteful pastel shades. Double beds are available, instead of the standard twin, with direct-dial telephones on the bedside table. New arrivals are greeted with wine and flowers and fruit.

The high season price is pounds 679 for 14 nights, including flight (low season, pounds 365). "Though some new visitors think the manager, Senor Pepe de la Rosa, looks too busy to talk, he is simply on the look-out for ways to improve his hotel," explains the brochure.

But Sr de la Rosa can afford to relax: Thomson has bought every one of his 225 rooms for 365 nights a year in a never-ending cycle of younger visitors in summer who give way to older, retired couples in winter. Mr Burling will not say how much, exactly, his company has paid to lease the hotel but suggests pounds 25 per room per night as an indication: pounds 9,125 per room and slightly over pounds 2m for the whole hotel. Sr de la Rosa does not even have to worry about what is known within the industry as "the graveyard" fortnight before Christmas when hardly anyone in Europe travels. For Mr Burling, it's a good price. "pounds 25 for a four-star hotel, half-board in Tenerife - you would never get anything like that in an equivalent four-star in this country." But Mr Burling also absorbs the hotelier's risk. The onus on filling the 225 rooms falls on Mr Burling, not Sr de la Rosa.

Thomson works on a 95 per cent occupancy rate. Of its 4.1m holidays sold this year (at an average price of pounds 450 each), 50-60 per cent were in rooms like those at Los Gigantes. But the gamble is not as great as it seems. The European package tour market is mature, and operators know from experience what sells.

For a start, half the people leaving Britain head for Spain, which includes the Balearics and Canaries, in winter and summer. Tuscany or the Dordogne may be more fashionable, but Spain does the business. Mr Burling explains that Spain's tourist industry is totally efficient and professional. Late in the day, the French Riviera has decided to try to catch up - for the first time, French hotels will feature in the main Thomson 1999 brochure - but it has a long way to go.

After criticism of walls of high-rise buildings crowding the beach-fronts, the Spanish government is encouraging hoteliers to think low-rise. Five years ago, a basic room near the sea was enough. Now, there must be a view, plenty of green and lots of "add-ons", with kids' clubs top of the list for families.

Spanish hoteliers are eagerly embracing the latest trend for "all-inclusive" packages which do not require the customer to pay anything extra for food, drinks and sports facilities. For the hotel, "all-inclusive" means buying in bulk and keeping costs down. For the holidaymaker, it means there is nothing more to pay. (Suggestions that "all-inclusive" translates as "buffet" at breakfast, lunch and dinner are treated by the operators as somewhat frivolous.)

Above all, the Spaniards are striving to give the British holidaymaker what he or she desires more than anything else, value for money. As proof of the pudding, the Spanish approach is spreading. This year, the Dominican Republic will receive 120,000 British visitors, more than head for the assorted attractions of Florida.

Ten years ago the Dominican Republic was a nowhere place which did not feature in brochures at all. Then the local tourist authority and hoteliers woke up to the possibilities, and now there are fine, low-rise hotels, many of them owned by Spanish chains. A fortnight in a four-star hotel in the Dominican Republic costs pounds 900, all-in: flight, accommodation, as much food and drink as you can consume. "We can now offer two weeks in the Caribbean against two weeks in Greece for not much more" says Richard Nealon, Thomson's long-haul manager. "The gloves are off!"

Mr Nealon and Mr Burling, Thomson's short-haul manager, are young, keen, rather earnest, sober-suited. They could be managers selling anything, anywhere. Like their offices, these men bear no relation to the glamour of their brochures, although an over-the-top manner is not completely absent from the London office. Russell Amerasekera, the communications director, wears a vivid, scarlet shirt coupled with a bright yellow tie and talks non-stop.

We learn that, while Thomson once produced one brochure, it now publishes 21, each carefully targeted at a different audience. There is Club Freestyle for the 18-30s, Young at Heart for the over 55s, Small and Friendly for people who want something quieter, Cruises, Faraway Shores for those wanting to go further afield, A La Carte for top of the range hotels, plus brochures for individual countries.

This year, the company will hand out 28 million brochures - one for every two people in Britain - and every entry is approved by the hotelier concerned, and every customer rating is genuine. Consequently, they are studied avidly by the trade: "If two hotels sit side-by-side and one has a higher food rating, the other will want to get its score up," says Mr Nealon.

And business is booming. Thomson's Winter Sun brochure, advertising holidays from November 1997 to April 1998, is 85 per cent sold already as a result of raised standards, growing wanderlust, earlier retirement, building society windfalls and a strong pound. But these factors are still not a guarantee against failure. Operators still make mistakes. The Gulf War left companies holding unsold rooms in the Middle East. A Thomson brochure contained a typographical error stating that holidays in Gambia cost pounds 55, instead of pounds 550. Thomson had to stand by its brochure, and travel agents were crushed in the rush. Palm Beach, Florida was an unexpected disaster. Thomson was sure the resort, which is a winter retreat for wealthy families from the northern states, would be a winner, but the people who read the Florida brochure wanted a holiday for their children too, and that meant Disneyland and Orlando. Out went Palm Beach.

Now it is the turn of the Olive Grove Apartments in Corfu to experience rejection, and to remind us that in the holiday trade, things ain't what they used to be.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Personal Tax Senior

£28000 - £37000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Customer and Markets Development Executive

£22000 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company's mission is to ma...

Recruitment Genius: Guest Services Assistant

£13832 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This 5 star leisure destination on the w...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Account Manager

£20000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Account Manager is requ...

Day In a Page

A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

A nap a day could save your life

A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

If men are so obsessed by sex...

...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

Rolling in the deep

The bathing machine is back but with a difference
Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory