ITC Travel Group’s new chief executive has 25 years’ travel experience under his belt. He speaks to Juliet Dennis

Mal Barritt’s CV makes impressive reading – Destinology, World Travel Holdings, Thomas Cook, MyTravel, and Gold Medal are among the companies he has worked for – and his calm, determined nature is coupled with a passion and enthusiasm for the business of which he is now a part.

After joining as chief operating officer in September last year, Barritt was made chief executive in May, a job held by Jennifer Atkinson, who is now group chairman.

Barritt sees it as a ‘double-act’, with Atkinson still actively involved in the business, particularly from the client, public relations and marketing point of view.

“I see it as a partnership with Jennifer,” he says. “She owns a significant amount of the business, we have private equity backing and management has a small shareholding. I back the vision and we work it out between us.”

Restructure

Already sweeping changes are afoot. The group has restructured its brands and agency sales division, and has dropped the Western & Oriental brand, merging its product into its Inspiring Travel Company (ITC) tour operator brand.

Other brands acquired with W&O in 2015 – Rainbow Tours (now Rainbow Africa), Regent Holidays and Villa Select – all remain.

Under the restructure, ITC covers beach, tailor-made and villa holidays (including Villa Select), while a separate ‘specialist’ division encompasses Regent Holidays, Rainbow Africa and ITC Sports.

Barritt stresses there was no intention to close down W&O when it was acquired, but the efficiencies of merging it with ITC, known for high-end villas, beach packages and cruises, soon became obvious.

He says: “Agents were buying from the W&O brand because of the people. There was not a huge amount of brand equity.

“We identified ITC had lost share from some customers because their needs had increased over time – but they were not going to W&O.

“We asked staff, agents and customers what they thought. The feedback was pretty resounding.

“We didn’t acquire the brand [W&O] to kill it off but we worked out a lot of what we were doing was the same across both brands. There was a bit of cannibalisation of hotels and we realised we could be better from an efficiency and service point of view.”

Head count has not gone down. “We have actually increased staff by a small number and we are still looking for more experienced travel sales staff,” he adds.

Merging the brands has brought W&O’s destinations, such as Latin America, Cuba, India, Canada, Cambodia and Vietnam, under ITC’s umbrella.

The result is a 200% increase in the size of ITC’s portfolio, which has 1,500 hotels, 100 villas and 300 tailor-made tours.

He adds: “We have a great opportunity now with trade partners and customers to have one message out there that covers all products and services we offer.”

Specialist brands

Barritt also has high hopes for the group’s niche operators.

“We see a huge opportunity with Regent and Rainbow. We believe we are at the forefront with these brands; people want these experiences.”

The trade makes up 30% of total sales for these brands, compared with 50% across all brands. “We want to increase our penetration in the trade community for these brands. We have joined the Association of Touring & Adventure Suppliers (Atas) and we are focused on how we can market these brands and bring different holidays to the trade,” he says.

Online

Barritt is very clear about his approach to trade distribution: it does not include making holidays bookable online.

He says: “We have a closed Facebook group for the trade but no agent portal. We are a people business and we want our trade customers to speak to us because we offer a service and knowledge. I struggle to see how you can do that online.”

But that does not mean the operator is avoiding investment in technology. It is ploughing £1 million into new technology over the next 12 months, including a new phone system and improved systems to provide faster quotes for agents and more-professional documents.

“Quotes will take half the time and the new phone system will filter enquiries to ensure they go to the person with the best knowledge. It will give us a level of sophistication we don’t have now.”

The trade

Agent sales currently represent about half the group’s business. But Barritt is hopeful a combination of measures, from trade incentives to overbranded agent brochures, fam trips and regional trade events every quarter, will increase sales.

“We need to be present on brochure racks and we need to be front of mind,” he says. “We want to increase our share of business with current trade partners. It’s about providing a better service for them, getting the right messages and prices out and there is a great opportunity with an aggressive push. We don’t want to be all things to all people.”

The group, which carries 35,000 passengers a year, has ambitions to grow revenue by 15% this year. “We will not be able to do that without the support of our trade partners,” admits Barritt.

It will also be promoting ITC Sports to agents who want to offer cricket, rugby, horse riding and Formula 1 events to clients. “We need to remind agents about it; it’s a bit of a sleeping giant at the moment,” he adds.

But the biggest growth will come from ITC’s tailor-made holidays, he says.

And destinations to watch? North America, Asia, South Africa, Borneo, Croatia and Ibiza are all singled out by Marritt for growth, as well as Turkey.

He adds: “Turkey is really coming back as a growth destination in the luxury family market because airlines are going back and a lot of new hotels are opening.”

60 seconds with Mal

Q. Where are you from?
A. Newtownards, County Down

Q. What book did you last read?
A. The Score Takes Care of Itself by Bill Walsh

Q. Where is your favourite holiday destination?
A. Ibiza. I’ve got a trip planned with my good lady this year.

Q. What do you enjoy doing on holiday?
A. Reading, eating and sleeping.

Q. What’s your guilty pleasure?
A. Peaky Blinders

Q. What’s been your best experience working in travel?
A. Working at British Midland – it had a phenomenal culture. It also provided me with my first managerial opportunity.

Q. What one thing about the industry would you change?
A. Reform travel regulations. They are too complicated – customers don’t understand them and neither do most people in the industry.

Q. Who inspires you in travel?
A. Anyone who can start a business and make a success of it, as it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done [Barritt co-founded World Travel Holdings].

Q. What’s your favourite food?
A. Anything my wife cooks.

Q. Which three people in travel would you invite to dinner?
A. Graham Sadler from Regent Seven Seas, Jen Atkinson from ITC and James Cole, my former business partner.

Q. Which three people NOT in travel would you invite?
A. George Best, Cheryl Cole and Peter Kay.