North-based travel firms discuss packages, takeovers, routes, airport fees and the need to modernise. Ben Ireland reports

On the Beach tips agent take-up of Classic Online

On the Beach chief executive Simon Cooper says he is hopeful agents will embrace the OTA’s shift to selling via the high street after its acquisition of Classic Collection Holidays.

The Manchester-based firm launched Classic Online after buying the operator for £20 million in August.

It signals a change in stance for the company, which Cooper told the room had “never sold a package prior to July 1, 2018”, when the new Package Travel Directive (PTD) was introduced.

However, he said he was confident agents would use the new portal because they had been using it before it moved towards a more trade-friendly model.

“Whenever there has been an airline failure, we have had people contact us, people who have, say, 28 bookings with us. These are not individual travellers, these are agents who have been on our portal pre-Package Travel Directive.

“Hopefully, over time, if we can build the right type of product, make it available to the agents to allow them to access competitively-priced product with fair incentives and commissions and so on, then I’m hopeful agents will embrace it.”

He added: “We always thought there was an opportunity to sell our product via the high street but not in a world pre-Package Travel Directive. It was a watershed moment. Our infrastructure has grown to support the sale of packages, so [we can provide] the 24/7 duty office, legal functions, direct marketing, health and safety and so on.”

He said Classic Collection would benefit from using On the Beach’s technology, while On the Beach would prosper from the trade contacts of Classic Collection, which will remain “a distinct, stand-alone entity”.

Cooper said Classic Online was “designed to be a competitively-priced mainstream offering” to help agents “who may now struggle post-Package Travel Directive”.

Acquisitions are not without their challenges – ITC

Inspiring Travel Company’s chairman has revealed she is interested in further acquisitions but warned of the difficulties of synergising multiple businesses.

Asked if ITC was interested in making further acquisitions, Jennifer Atkinson said: “Yes, we are.”

But she warned: “We learnt a lot when we bought Western & Oriental Group [in 2015]. When we bought them there were four businesses in the group – Western & Oriental [since merged with ITC], Regent Holidays, Rainbow Tours and Villa Select – three of them in different locations.

“Before, we had been focused on long-haul beach, predominantly at the top end of the market, based in Chester. Then, pretty much overnight, we had four sites and a lot of sales staff as homeworkers.

“One day we woke up and realised we had four different cultures in lots of different locations and, actually, the success of our business – which was having a nucleus of what we stand for and what we deliver to the customer – became difficult to deliver.”

Atkinson added: “Acquisition is great, but if it’s to get you there quicker than organic growth, it’s not without its challenges. Either you leave [an acquired brand] in its entirety, and I don’t know many acquisitions where that has been the case, or you look at integration, which becomes really complex. It’s about looking at the right strategic goal and what travel businesses out there can offer something to us that we can’t do or grow ourselves.”

Atkinson became chairman when Mal Barritt joined as chief executive in September 2017.

“I wanted someone to come into the business that could run the operations side while I could focus on more strategic stuff, acquisitions and what’s next.”

Looking back at the financial crash 10 years ago, she added: “It was absolutely the most dreadful experience of my professional career.” Atkinson recalled the crash, coupled with the death in 2009 of ITC founder Drew Foster, “nearly [caused] the end of our business”.

“It took a certain amount of aggression and confidence in our decisions in order to regroup, re-cost and move on. That was a painful part of the journey [but] now we are growing.”

Debus plans more Manchester routes for Thomas Cook

The boss of Thomas Cook Airlines has promised more long-haul growth out of Manchester, with both new routes and increased frequencies on existing services.

Chief executive Christoph Debus said Manchester “is the heart of our operation in the UK”.

The airline flies to 17 long-haul destinations from Manchester and employs 1,700 staff at the airport.

Debus said: “Manchester gives us the ability to develop really good long-haul networks. In London you have so much offering, but we started our [long-haul] strategy from Manchester five years ago [because] many people from the north prefer to go direct.

“We will grow that network. Not only new routes but we will increase the frequencies too.”

Debus cited the example of the Manchester-New York route, which Thomas Cook Airlines introduced in summer 2015 with three flights a week and now operates daily, even during winter.

Airport’s £3 drop-off fee ‘ends congestion’

Manchester airport’s chief operating officer defended the introduction of drop-off charges, claiming “congestion has gone”.

Tricia Williams said cars bringing passengers to the gate “were bringing our airport to a halt”, before the airport introduced a five-minute £3 fee in July.

“Last summer in particular was really difficult,” she said. “We spent nine months planning to introduce the drop-off charge. We knew it wouldn’t be attractive. We knew we wouldn’t make any friends introducing it. But there was absolutely no other option.”

Manchester has five drop-off zones across its three terminals and train station.

Williams said £3 was “a lot of people’s tipping point” but stressed there was also a free drop-off further from the terminals, from where passengers can take a bus to and from the gates. Blue Badge holders have free access to the £3 zones, she added.

Williams said: “Congestion has gone. It’s made a significant difference.”

But she admitted: “It hasn’t been received well. There has been a lot of negative feedback. Other airports we spoke to said we will see this overwhelming feedback initially, but it will reduce congestion.”

Williams said of other UK airports, only Gatwick and Heathrow do not charge a drop-off fee.

Specialist Leisure spends £700k on fleet-wide Wi-Fi

Modernising the Shearings and National Holidays brands is key to the coach operators staying ahead of the market, Specialist Leisure Group chief executive Richard Calvert says.

He told delegates how Shearings had spent £700,000 installing Wi-Fi in all 240 of its coaches so they are “best in class”.

“We have to modernise ourselves,” he said of the Wi-Fi rollout. “If my local bus company has got Wi-Fi then why doesn’t the leading company have it?”

Calvert, who joined the business in spring 2017, said a “state-of-the-art” onboard entertainment system will be rolled out – to be called Roadshow on Shearings, and  Wave on National Holidays – offering a choice of up to 60 films.

Shearings recently took delivery of 45 new coaches, and Calvert said he wants Specialist Leisure Group to get a “greater share of the customer’s wallet” by increasing its average customer spend from £300.

He said Shearings’ Worldwide range had prompted repeat clients to book a £17,000 US holiday and £6,000 Borneo trip.