Comment: It's time to recognise the value of traditional operators

Comment: It's time to recognise the value of traditional operators

by Noel Josephides, managing director of Sunvil

Over the last week, the newspapers have been full of articles extolling the virtues of 'flight-plus’ and how it is no longer necessary to book with a traditional, full-service tour operator or through a travel agent because the protection available through 'flight-plus' is identical.

Well, that's not exactly true! It should not be forgotten that the 'flight-plus' scheme is an interim measure, designed simply to bring more money into the Air Travel Trust Fund's coffers, before the UK has to adopt the upgraded Package Travel Directive, the consultation document for which we should have in the first couple of months of 2013.

So, what's the difference? The best way of illustrating the advantages of booking via a tour operator which fully complies with the 1992 Package Travel Regulations is via an example.  It’s all about taking responsibility for your clients, and looking after them when plans go wrong for whatever reason.

On Wednesday, August 15, dawn in Greece brought unexpectedly high winds.  Sunvil had eight clients on the Dodecanese island of Tilos. At 10.30 am that day, we had an e-mail from our local agent in Rhodes informing us that the Fedon, the ferry we use to transfer our clients to and from Rhodes and Tilos, would not be running. 

Our clients would have to stay an extra night on Tilos, which meant missing their return charter flight to the UK, and our arriving passengers would have to spend their first night on Rhodes - not easy to arrange on the peak day of the summer season. 

We could not find any flights out of Rhodes on Thursday and, if the weather did not improve, the ferry could well have been cancelled on the Thursday too.  We decided to go for a larger ferry which was more likely to operate if the weather did not improve and found one that operated from Tilos to Kos on Thursday morning. 

We managed to book the last eight seats on an easyJet flight departing Kos at 21.50 and arriving into Gatwick at 23.55. Our clients left Tilos at 10.15 on the Thursday morning and we arranged for day rooms on Kos until they were due to leave for Kos airport on Thursday evening. 

Fortunately, there were no more delays and the flight from Kos to Gatwick left as planned.  Two of our clients had originally come in on our Manchester to Rhodes flight so we took them by taxi from Gatwick to Manchester, which cost £350. 

The eight easyJet flights cost £2,021 and we still do not know what the various extra hotel rooms cost. The total cost to Sunvil will probably be in the region of £3,000, let alone the manpower that went into arranging it all - but the cost to the clients was ZERO.

We don't make much on Greek holidays, especially in 2012, and I can assure you that such events are not a welcome additional overhead!

Can you imagine what those clients would have had to cope with had they been on their own?  What would an online travel agent have done?  Certainly, I would venture, nothing like what Sunvil did – if indeed anything.  (Would the clients even have been able to contact an online travel agent in such circumstances, I wonder?)

Unfortunately, the national strike on the September 26 in Greece saw us with a similar problem to handle, with clients stranded on the island of Karpathos.  That was an expensive rescue exercise, too.

Do so-called 'legacy' tour operators such as Sunvil get any recognition or support from the likes of Abta and the CAA? I am afraid not.  Abta is anxious to give as much support as possible to the OTAs, the new kids on the block, and the CAA simply wants as many £2.50s as possible so that the government can wipe out the negative balance on the Air Travel Trust Fund.

Our best supporter, the only organisation that actually wants to improve customer care and protection, is - yes, wait for it! - the European Commission.  We understand that that the European Commission believes 'flight-plus' does not comply with the current Package Travel Directive and we understand that the reformed Directive will beef up consumer protection even more.

Perhaps the European Commission will do for us what our own trade organisation and regulator have failed to do, i.e. to promote those that strive for excellence and who carry the flag for the travel industry.

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