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
It must have come as no surprise, then, when the company appointed its
first group director of communications, Russell Amerasekera, in
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
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