What a year it's been for travel

Interviews by Simon Calder


Even by its usual standards, the travel industry has had a tough year – aftershocks continue from September 11 2001, with airlines going into bankruptcy, MyTravel having problems with its sums, and the looming prospect of war on Iraq threatening to upset projections for next year. Four top industry figures have spoken exclusively to
The Independent about the past 12 months and their hopes for the coming year.

Even by its usual standards, the travel industry has had a tough year – aftershocks continue from September 11 2001, with airlines going into bankruptcy, MyTravel having problems with its sums, and the looming prospect of war on Iraq threatening to upset projections for next year. Four top industry figures have spoken exclusively to The Independent about the past 12 months and their hopes for the coming year.

Sir Richard Branson

Chairman, Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Blue (the Australian no-frills airline)

September 11 meant different things for our different airlines. For Virgin Atlantic it meant we had to survive it. We had to move quickly and make the most painful decisions I have ever had to make in my lifetime. Our team at Virgin Atlantic moved fast and did as best as they could. Six months later, Virgin Atlantic came out of what had been a bit of a nose-dive and I think came out the stronger for it.

Virgin Atlantic is climbing back really quite well considering that 80 per cent of its business was transatlantic. We are now in profit again. We have actually added new routes we weren't flying before. We stuck by our order for the A340-600s and we are bringing in new planes throughout the year.

The price of new planes collapsed and Virgin Blue actually benefited from the problems that other airlines were suffering around the world. It has expanded as rapidly as any airline could expand, and has been one of the more profitable airlines in the world.

I hope that the coming year will be more enjoyable for everyone in the airline business than the last 12 months have been and that there can be a lot more smiles around.

Frank Watson

Retail Director at Stanfords map and travel booksellers

We've had a fantastic year although it has been challenging over the last 12 to 18 months because of foot-and-mouth and September 11. People have continued travelling. When they couldn't travel here, they travelled overseas. After September 11, people were travelling to the near Continent on budget airlines.

At Stanfords things are exciting right now. We're entering our 150th year. Coinciding with that we are expanding our Long Acre shop [in London], our flagship store, by 50 per cent. And we are opening a new shop in central Manchester next month.

What's selling fast? Maps of Iraq. People want to be able to place and identify where these places that are being discussed are. As far as guide books go, Croatia was very popular in the summer. To places such as Indonesia, sales have dropped off almost completely.

Martha Lane Fox

co-founder, lastminute.com

It's been a year of transformation. A year ago we were at an all-time share price low. This year we've been one of the best performing shares on the stock market. We've acquired businesses that have enabled us to improve our offering to customers, finding companies that needed an injection of technology to grow. For example, we bought travelselect.com which has given us a fantastic offering for flights. We have a lot more customers than we did a year ago, and we know a lot more about them, so we can tailor our offers to meet their needs. I'm proud of the site and what it's become – which is much closer to our original vision. Customers now have a much better experience with lastminute.com.

There were only five weeks this year when I haven't travelled somewhere. I love travelling on business, though I could do with a little less time spent in airports and on runways.

Terry Williamson

Managing Director, Cosmos

It's been a fabulous year. I think there are some people in the industry who have carried a lot more people than they should have done and there are others who have carried fewer and acted prudently and made more money. I'd say I was in the latter category.

By destination it's been a mixed year. The Balearics have had a bad year and the Costa Brava's not had a particularly good year but the Costa Blanca and Costa del Sol have had a phenomenal year – beds have been sold out every single week all season long.

In the eastern Mediterranean, Greece has had a fabulous year and Turkey has had an absolutely extraordinary year and is going from strength to strength. Next year, I believe that Turkey will be a phenomenal success. War with Iraq is a strong possibility but I believe that generally the British public are pretty resilient to that these days.

The package holiday is alive and well, despite all the stories about people putting together their own trips. What the package industry doesn't do enough of is explain the positive aspects of a package. We offer security: we spend millions as an industry investing in health and safety. We send consultants out to check properties.

Cosmos is still a family-owned business, and we've got 40 years of heritage. This company is still owned by the same guy who started it. We still have the entrepreneurial spirit, the passion, the commitment that he had when he started this business. You can't say that for many other travel businesses today. Our point of differentiation is that we provide civilised holidays; the other guys provide mass holidays. There's a difference.

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