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The high street travel shops are tempting us with big discounts on summer holidays. But are they offering enough choice? Jeremy Skidmore reports
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The Independent Travel
Anyone who went into a branch of Thomas Cook before Christmas to book a holiday may have expected unbiased advice from one of the oldest and most respected names in travel.

But it is unlikely they would have been recommended a holiday offered by Thomson, the UK's largest tour operator, after a long-running dispute between the two companies led to Thomson withdrawing its products from Cook.

Travel agents make their money on commission from selling holidays and Cook has long bemoaned the fact that Thomson sticks to a policy of giving only 10 per cent commission, while other operators are more generous.

In October, Cook told its staff that anyone requesting certain Thomson holidays for 1996 should instead be offered alternatives from Sunworld, First Choice and Airtours - all of which pay higher commission levels.

Thomson was outraged and pulled out of Cook.

Though the row has been resolved and Thomson is now back on sale at Thomas Cook, the dispute highlights how far the big travel agencies have changed. As Holiday Which? magazine reported yesterday, they are no longer offering unbiased advice to holidaymakers.

The two biggest agencies, 785-branch Lunn Poly and 707-branch Going Places, are part of "vertically integrated companies", Thomson and Airtours respectively. These giants can put holidays together through their tour operation and sell them through their agent. They even have their own airlines.

The third and fourth biggest retailers - 390-branch AT Mays and 385-branch Thomas Cook - are not strictly vertically integrated but they have links with operators. AT Mays has an agreement with Inspirations (which announced good profits on Monday), and Cook owns 21.4 per cent of First Choice - the third force in the industry.

The retailers' loyalties lie first and foremost with the companies to which they are linked. Lunn Poly will recommend Thomson, and Going Places will push Airtours. Beyond that, the big chains will push a limited number of companies. They agree to sell a certain quantity of their holidays in return for lucrative commission deals.

The big chains are in a battle for business with each other and the higher commission levels are partly used to fund discounts to tempt holidaymakers through their doors.

This may seem great news for the holidaymaker. But independent agents claim vertically integrated companies are conning the public and putting them out of business. They point out that the bargains are often tied to the chain's insurance policy, which is often more expensive.

John Spicer, of Spicer Travel Bureau in Llandudno, says: "If someone wants a bargain, I say 'I'll give you the same price as that lot down the road and I'll load the insurance, as they do'. At the end of the day there's often little difference."

More worrying is the sharp rise in failures of independent companies, with most claiming they were forced out of business by the multiples. From July to October, 49 Abta independentsfailed - almost double the rate in the 12 months to June 1995, when there were 74 collapses.

The Office of Fair Trading's former director general, Sir Bryan Carsberg, investigated vertical integration over a year ago and took no action because he said there was sufficient consumer choice and intense competition between the big companies was keeping prices down.

But the OFT's new director-general, John Bridgeman, is taking another look and Artac, a consortium of 503 independent agents, is hoping this time the OFT will refer the matter to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission.

The big players, meanwhile, are sticking to their guns. An insider at Going Places says: "We make it quite clear in our shops that we are part of the Airtours group and are proud to recommend its products. As far as I am concerned it is just good business sense and is nothing more than any well run companies in other industries operate."

Mr Bridgeman will rule shortly.

The writer is associate editor of 'Travel Weekly'.