It used to be that you had hardly returned from holiday before next year's breaks were advertised. But this year tour operators have gone one better by revealing them before most people have gone away.
As Airtours and First Choice unveiled their summer 1997 brochures yesterday, two high street travel agents, Going Places and Lunn Poly, offered 13 per cent off next year's prices.
Holiday companies Sunworld and Inspirations also joined in, with Inspiration offering prices 3 per cent lower across the board. However Thomson, currently the UK's biggest holiday company, stood aloof from the fray; it is expected to wait until 1 August. First Choice said people booking before 3 August could get savings of up to pounds 150 per couple, with savings of up to pounds 240 per couple on departures to Majorca from Glasgow.
Prices start at pounds 119 per person and pounds 349 for a family of four staying for a week in apartments in Majorca in April 1997.
"We would have preferred not to launch as early as this, but there are some great bargains," said Kevin Ivie, First Choice group marketing director.
Airtours claimed that couples will make an average saving of pounds 14 compared with last year and has slashed pounds 13m off prices altogether. The company says its main reason is to "steal a march on its competitors", and is offering seven nights in the Costa Brava for pounds 239, or pounds 249 for seven nights in Egypt. Yesterday Peter Rothwell, group managing director, said it was selling a thousand holidays an hour.
Usually the big companies hold off from launching their new brochures until September. The last time they launched early was in August 1994, and that was acknowledged to have been a failure, a spokeswoman for the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA) said yesterday. "The August launch in 1994 was not very successful because most people had gone away at that point," she said. .
"For travel agents there is going to be a problem as they are still selling holidays for summer '96. The agents are meant to have a reasonable knowledge of the products on offer, so if they are going to be selling summer '96, winter '96 and summer '97 it's going to be an awful lot of work," she added. "People have been suggesting, does it mean there are problems in the industry? I don't think so. I think it shows what competition there is among the biggest companies."
The companies are trying to target families, who tend to book early. Airtours said yesterday that the uncertain economic climate has split would-be holiday-makers into "haves" and "may haves"
The haves, the primary target of the current price war, enjoy a secure income flow and want to guarantee their first choice of holiday destination and accommodation. More than half have time restrictions (such as school holidays), are looking for free child places or want long-haul breaks which need advanced planning. In comparison, the may haves book later and compromise on choice.
This year 1.7 million people booked their summer holiday before Christmas and almost half of these booked as soon as the brochures came out. Late bookers frequently faced problems with their first choice of holiday - one in seven people this year were unable to book their first choice.
Overseas tourists are continuing to flock to Britain in record numbers. Foreign visitors in the first four months of 1996 totalled 6.8 million - 7 per cent up on January to April 1995, according to the Office of National Statistics. They spent pounds 2.9 billion - 2 per cent more than in the same period last year.
What's in the brochures
What Airtours is offering
pounds 99 per person for seven nights self-catering on the Costa Brava; pounds 239 for all-inclusive holidays. Thousands of free child places, and reduced-price children's holidays from pounds 9; Florida from pounds 369; seven nights in Egypt for pounds 249 per person; all- inclusive 14-night holidays in the Dominican Republic, pounds 619 (weddings in the Republic, pounds 99 extra); Two weeks in Florida, pounds 369 (children, pounds 199)
What First Choice is offering
pounds 119 for a week in Majorca (pounds 349 for a family of four); all-inclusive holiday to Majorca from pounds 329 for seven nights; pounds 549 for two weeks in Mexico; savings of up to pounds 240 per couple on departures to Majorca from Glasgow; free grandparent places for the Balearics, Canaries, mainland Spain, The Algarve, Malta and Greece.
One-parent families offer: some child prices for single parents