Travel: A good clean-up before they go

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The Independent Travel
DELEGATES to this year's Abta (Association of British Travel Agents) convention in Palma were well aware that this could be the last - certainly the last overseas - meeting of this sort.

The travel industry has changed dramatically in the past five years: as an organisation Abta finds it hard to reconcile the competing interests of its big and small members. Abta may not actually disappear but it will almost certainly continue in a very different form.

Whether or not this is the end of Abta, the most significant factor to emerge from this week is a new maturity. Tour operators - particularly the UK's biggest company, Thomson - are showing a genuine commitment to preserving and restoring the environment of holiday destinations.

The most enthusiastically attended session of the whole convention was a briefing on what Majorca had so far achieved in smartening up resorts such as Magaluf, and the new laws introduced to prevent further despoilation. For the first time there appears to be a consensus on environmental matters.

There also appears to be a genuine effort to improve the quality of packages. The problem is that this goodwill often only lasts as long as bookings hold up. When the going gets tough, the first casualty tends to be quality. With a fresh price war likely to erupt any day soon, we shall see how long the quality initiative lasts.

Lost visionaries

WHAT persuades aspiring entrepreneurs to seek a future in the travel industry? In the present climate of trading, a new tour operator takes to the air knowing that like a First World War pilot his chances of an extended career are not promising.

When the Abta convention was last held in Palma 10 years ago, the major players included Intasun and Horizon. Both are now defunct: Intasun crashed, Horizon was bought by Thomson. When the convention was first held in Palma 20 years ago, the star performers included Clarksons and Laker.

Delegates attending the convention this week, well aware of the industry's troubled past, are trying to plot a course for the future. Their current preoccupation is to sell this summer's programme of holidays. Business is about the same as this time last year (viewed as a significant achievement). Turkey and Spain are doing well; Cyprus, Greece and Florida are selling badly. May, June and July are booking reasonably well; August and September are only partly sold. Operators must now decide when to start cutting prices for the badly selling destinations and weak months, aware that if they get these calculations wrong, the financial grave gapes wide.

It is a much riskier business for a newcomer than it was 20 years ago. The main package holiday business rests in the hands of three key players: Thomson, Airtours and Owners Abroad, who control a 60 per cent share of tour operating business - and their travel agency affiliates, Lunn Poly, Pickfords and Thomas Cook, have a 50 per cent share of bookings.

The major operators may be right in arguing that there is sufficient competition between the top three to allay concerns about a monopoly, but while there may be competition in today's package holiday business, there is also less choice and decreasing diversity. The convention in Palma 20 years ago was dominated by innovators: people who were prepared to take risks and fly by the seat of their pants. Today's top tour operators are less charismatic: they are business people keen to impose order on an industry that has always proved difficult to order.

When people buy holidays they tend to buy with their hearts rather than their heads: they are buying a dream rather than a product. But the idea of the standard two-week sun and sand package, while still excellent value, is no longer the dream it was 20 years ago.

This convention provided a perfect opportunity to set out some new dreams. While the industry may now have better business sense, it lacks much of the vision and excitement which once characterised tour operating. What it desperately needs is new blood, which is probably exactly what it won't get.

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