Big Interview: How Tui Travel is making all the difference

Big Interview: How Tui Travel is making all the difference

Market leader’s growing sale of exclusive product reflects success of the Thomson/First Choice merger, managing director Dave Burling tells Lee Hayhurst

When Thomson and First Choice started the process of merging in 2007, the current Tui Travel managing director, Dave Burling, found a note on his desk left by chief executive Peter Long.

It simply said "we have to get the best of both", recalled Burling, who assumed control of the UK’s market-leading travel firm six months ago following the departure of Dermot Blastland.

"We started with that mentality," said Burling, a key architect of the merger and someone who has been steeped in the Thomson way for two decades.

Burling has no doubt the merger was a success. To underline this, he points out that his board of nine has three people from Thomson, including himself, three from First Choice and three newcomers.

"People tell you most mergers don’t work but, looking back, the process between First Choice and Thomson could not have worked better," said Burling, speaking exclusively to Travel Weekly at Tui’s Luton head office.

Having the entire operation based under one roof – Wigmore House, a stone’s throw from Luton airport – has been key in engendering a sense of oneness, said Burling.

We are speaking the day after the latest "town hall" event in the building’s central atrium during which Thomson Cruises’ planned upgrade of two ships to Platinum status was showcased to staff.

A presentation of the changes to Thomson Dream and Thomson Celebration came with a surprise performance by entertainers from the cruise ships.

For Burling it is the sort of product the inhouse cruise operator offers that epitomises what today’s Tui Travel is all about.

He spoke of pride about how new ship Thomson Dream went from being featured on BBC’s Watchdog due to problems following a rushed introduction to being rated best mid-sized ship by users of influential forum cruisecritic.co.uk.

And customer ratings for the operator’s land-based product are also flagged up as an outward sign that Tui is getting something right. Burling highlighted a list of Europe’s top-rated hotels for families on TripAdvisor, pointing out that four of the top five were exclusive to Thomson or First Choice.

Tui’s vision is to create a virtuous circle: a simplified portfolio of quality product that sells well, leading to repeat custom, better margins and reinvestment back into the product.

Differentiated product now accounts for 63% of sales, up from around 55% last year, and the figure is rising.

"In our own shops the role has changed somewhat in that they are very much behind selling our own differentiated product and therefore one of the key success factors is knowledge of that product," said Burling.

"And in the same way, on our websites it’s all about how good the content we provide is for that differentiated product.

"When people have good holidays they come back to where they got them."

On the supplier side strong relations with hoteliers means Thomson and First Choice are increasingly able to strike exclusive deals and work hand in hand to develop new holiday concepts.

Burling said last year’s launch of Thomson Couples, an updated version of the original Thomson concept Gold, was its most successful to date.

"We are an integrated holiday company designing and delivering holiday experiences. We are not just a broker selling anyone with whom we have an electronic link.

"The real success factor is those satisfaction scores and reviews.

"This requires us to work very closely with suppliers. We buy in bulk so we get the rates from the hotelier but we want exclusivity."

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