Travel: Which? battle

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The Independent Travel
EVERY two years, the Consumers' Association magazine Holiday Which? publishes a 'Which tour operator?' report based on a survey of its readers. In this column in previous years I have provoked the wrath of the CA by remarking on what a pointless exercise this is.

Each time the results are almost the same. This year's best operator, according to the 33,999 readers who replied to the survey (only a third of whom had actually taken a package holiday), is the French specialist VFB Holidays. No surprise here: VFB seems to have been the favourite Holiday Which? operator since these surveys began. And guess what: the least favourite operators with its readers include Enterprise, Airtours, Olympic Holidays and Aspro Holidays - all bottom-of-the-market companies not likely to be patronised by the largely middle-class CA membership. This is rather like asking for Independent readers' views of the Sun or vegetarians' opinions of tripe.

One new development this year is that the tour operators have decided not to take their drubbing lying down. Even before the survey results were published, the Tour Operators Study Group - an association of the 17 biggest holiday companies - sent out a press release attacking the survey's statistical reliability.

The TOSG release has details of a report on the survey conducted by a statistical expert which supports my point about how unrepresentative the CA findings are (the survey covers fewer than 1 per cent of households in the United Kingdom, and upmarket households at that). It goes on to launch a blistering attack on the CA's credibility. 'The Consumers' Association's accounts for the 15 months to end-June 1991 reveal that the organisation which claims to champion consumers' rights and safety spent 50 per cent more on promotion than it did on research,' it says.

It adds caustically that there is no indication in the accounts of any arrangements to protect subscriptions paid in advance to the CA (a reference to the high levels of consumer protection required of the travel industry but not of the consumer magazine business).

But Holiday Which? does not need the TOSG to undermine its credibility; in this month's issue it seems to be doing the job itself. For example, in analysing its readers' verdicts on accommodation, the report says that one in four people were dissatisfied with the lowest rated operators, when what it should have said was one in seven. And it gives the general level of dissatisfaction with accommodation as fewer than one in 10, when it should have said one in 14. The Which? survey also mistakenly claims that Virgin Holidays is non-Abta.

This survey probably costs the CA at least pounds 15,000 in postage alone. For half the fee I would be happy to tell it in what order the operators are likely to be rated by their readers.

However, the point of the survey does not seem to be the provision of invaluable information for readers. In my opinion the poll is really nothing more than a convenient way of securing publicity for the CA in general and Holiday Which? in particular - newspapers enjoy running lists of the best and the worst holiday companies.

Faced with having to attract huge numbers of new subscribers every year, the CA needs all the publicity it can get. Hence its regular 'lucky number' draws and 'you may already have won a prize' mailshots.

I think that the bruising battle between the TOSG and the CA could build into quite a cat fight: more interesting than a boring old survey.

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