Customers of independent tour operators are “astonishingly” loyal and value companies which offer expertise and the personal touch, according to a new report by the Specialist Travel Association (Aito).

Aito  has launched a Travel Insights 2020 report based on results of its annual Insights survey, which analysed 26,000 responses from current or prospective clients of 40 of its operators.

The survey showed 90% of clients who booked with an Aito operator would do so again while 96% of respondents would recommend their company to a friend, family or colleague.

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Of those aged 50 to 70 years, 60% said expertise and specialism was more important to them than other factors.

Speaking on a panel at the launch, Tom Dunn, director of digital design at digital agency Wild Dog Design, an Aito affiliate member, said: “These are astonishing levels of retention.”

But Journey Latin America managing director Sarah Bradley said it remained a challenge to convince some consumers to book with a specialist. “You have to keep reiterating the benefits of the personal touch,” she said.

The survey also highlighted personalised emails as the most important client communication channel and stressed that the time between booking and travelling was an important time to keep in touch with customers.

Roy Barker, director of marketing company Spike, which analysed the survey data for the report, said: “Social media is important but email is crucial in terms of how customers want to be kept in touch – [they want] personalised emails that appear to reinforce the customer service they get from a specialist operator rather than blanket communications.”

He added that Aito companies were well-placed to take advantage of the “bulge” of 47-65 year olds in the current UK population.

There are currently 17.3 million 47 to 65 year olds in the market, compared with 14 million 28 to 46 year olds, due to a fall in the birth rate. In total, 75% of the total wealth of the country is owned by people aged 45 to 74, he said. “The population bulge will work in favour of specialist operators,” he said.

Meanwhile, Aito members were also urged at the report’s launch to use their destination knowledge and strong relationships with clients to “ride out” any current uncertainty in the market due to issues such as the coronavirus.

Barker said: “Uncertainty can be mitigated by knowledge. There are some things you cannot do anything about but longer term there are a lot of advantages to understanding the market.”

Bradley added: “It’s something you are always exposed to and you have got to ride it out; look after customers, be fair and do the right thing for the client. Destinations do come back.”

MoreAito Travel Insights Report 2020 [External]