Escorted tour specialists say their first trips since lockdown are proving a hit with holidaymakers, whose worries about travelling in a pandemic are proving unfounded.

“There’s almost never been a better time to travel,” said Riviera Travel chief executive Phil Hullah.

He was speaking with Intrepid Travel’s EMEA managing director Zina Bencheikh and Newmarket Holidays’ chief executive Niel Alobaidi – fellow members of the Assocation of Touring and Adventure Suppliers (Atas) – to Travel Weekly editor-in-chief Lucy Huxley during a Travel Weekly webcast.

Hullah said feedback from staff who had been on test tours to Italy was very positive, despite initial nerves after being in lockdown for months.

“They’re able to walk across St Mark’s Square [in Venice] and take a photo with nobody in it, or walk around Lake Garda…with a few Italians doing domestic tourism. They love it.

“We’ve had really good feedback from the guests we’ve had on the two tours we’ve run so far.

“It can be your chance to sneak out and have a really unique experience.”

He said a key consideration is informing travellers about what to expect in advance, such as face coverings.

“The perception of it is way worse than the reality. When people get out there, they remember what they love about it. Actually, it’s better in some ways than ever.”

Alobaidi said trips and destinations all need a different health and safety audit – for example, Scottish hotel rooms are left unoccupied for a certain period after a guest has departed, and Belfast clients had bacon butties delivered in a bag, instead of going to a buffet each morning.

“The coaching element is probably something where we get more of a consistent approach,” he added.

“We are doing a maximum of 30 people on a 55-seater coach.

“They have an allocated seat and sit in that same seat for the whole duration of the tour.

“We load the tour coach in a certain order so there’s less passing within the aisle.”

One set of clients from a recent Belfast tour were so happy with their experience that they booked two more tours over the next six weeks.

The operators all agreed that the role of the tour manager is crucial, as they have detailed local knowledge and the ability to react quickly if circumstances change.

Hullah said: “They’re all really good people, keen as mustard to be out there and showing us what they’re made of.”

He said the first tour to the Italian lakes was affected by a change of quarantine rules in Switzerland.

“Immediately our tour manager reached for the contingency plan and rerouted things…and did it brilliantly.”

Bencheikh said tour managers have the power, knowledge and training to adapt to sudden changes of plan, such as overcrowded restaurants or transport.

They have had extra training for Covid procedures and have kit such as extra masks and hand sanitiser, as well as details of hospitals and local regulations.