Travel PR: PR demand rises in shrinking travel trade - As the major players in the UK travel industry snap up smaller specialist agents and increase their market share, they are now turning to PR in order to consolidate brand images

This summer has been busier than usual for the UK’s biggest holiday companies. They have spent the season making moves to improve their PR and, almost without exception, have either filled newly-created board-level communications posts or reviewed their PR agencies. Most recently, Airtours Holidays announced it was in the middle of a consumer agency review as part of a drive to improve its image.

This summer has been busier than usual for the UK’s biggest holiday

companies. They have spent the season making moves to improve their PR

and, almost without exception, have either filled newly-created

board-level communications posts or reviewed their PR agencies. Most

recently, Airtours Holidays announced it was in the middle of a consumer

agency review as part of a drive to improve its image.



The most obvious explanation for this emphasis on PR is the

consolidation which the holiday sector has been undergoing in the past

months, with the big players snapping up smaller, specialist operations.

This empire-building has created swollen, often relatively disparate

groups needing stronger corporate PR to bond the divisions and create a

sense of group identity both externally and internally.



Most of the big players floated prior to going shopping for smaller

operators, a move which in itself has created a need for financial PR.

Even Thomas Cook, one of the few market leaders not to have floated,

retains a financial PR agency, Citigate Financial - its only retained PR

agency - to maintain a corporate presence in the City and because of its

shareholding in listed competitor, First Choice.



Thomson Travel Group floated earlier this year and has since embarked on

something of a spending spree, snapping up Blakes Holiday Boating

earlier this month and ski specialist Crystal International Travel last

month.



It must have come as no surprise, then, when the company appointed its

first group director of communications, Russell Amerasekera, in

June.



As Amerasekera says: ’Consolidation involves companies recognising a

need to ensure corporate links and provide support for their respective

businesses - to make sure brands are actively promoted to the trade, the

City and consumers.’



Brand promotion is an area which Anita McErlean, recently appointed as

Airtours Holidays’ first ever communications director, says has lost out

in the wake of the takeovers and restructuring. ’Until recently, a lot

of our energy was spent introducing new types of holidays and dealing

with the growth. Now we have the market share we want in the UK.

However, we don’t believe there’s sufficient brand differentiation in

the travel industry,’ she says.



One of the reasons behind First Choice Holidays’ recent agency review

across three of its tour operations, for example, was a lack of

recognition of the First Choice brand, chosen in 1994 as a replacement

for the company’s previous name, Owners Abroad.



Another PR side effect of acquisitions, one perhaps more worrying for

consultancies, is that, as Amerasekera points out: ’Inevitably, when you

integrate, you look at not incurring costs which are duplicated in other

parts of the business.’



With the smaller fish effectively removed from the sea, the competition

among agencies for the big accounts becomes more ferocious.



There were applications from 26 agencies competing initially for the

Airtours account, for example, before the company whittled these down to

a five-strong shortlist and then, after pitches, to a final duel between

two agencies, the outcome of which was expected this week.



’There’s certainly more competition. Acquisition means there are fewer

travel accounts to work on,’ says Debbie Hindle, deputy managing

director at BGB, which works for Blakes Holiday Boating, which was taken

over by Thomson this month.



The relationship between sectoral consolidation and PR would no doubt

hold true for any industry in the throes of restructuring. But old hands

in travel PR note that the holiday industry actually cottoned on to the

importance of PR earlier than most sectors.



Jeremy Skidmore, editor of trade magazine Travel Weekly believes the

sector is intrinsically PR-friendly: ’There’s more space in the papers

for travel pieces, the travel companies are selling a dream to a lot of

people so it’s important they communicate that. And people are the first

to complain about their holiday, so the companies need PR to smooth that

over.’



Alexis Coles, the newly-promoted PR and communications director at

Thomas Cook, argues that, of the elements in the marketing mix, PR can

have the upper hand for promoting holidays because of its relative

cheapness. ’Ten million people travel through a holiday company. One has

to get them to come to Thomas Cook, rather than to Lunn Poly. PR can be

a very cost-effective way to get people through your door, especially as

our sales margins are very low,’ she says.



The current competitive climate has nonetheless heightened the extent to

which the travel industry relies on PR and increased the need for

creativity among agencies and in-house departments. While it is easy for

a PR professional to place a standard holiday piece in the travel pages

of a Sunday newspaper in the run-up to the summer, the big players now

want to see their names in news stories on the front page outside the

holiday season.



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