NEWS ANALYSIS: PROs adjust to changing climes of travel market - The Christmas season has barely ended and already travel PR specialists are turning their attention to the summer ahead

For many of those returning to work this week after the winter break, thoughts of their next holidays may not be far from their minds. The depths of winter can bring out the holiday fan in anyone, be it a couple of weeks skiing or longing for hotter climes and organising summer breaks.

For many of those returning to work this week after the winter break, thoughts of their next holidays may not be far from their minds. The depths of winter can bring out the holiday fan in anyone, be it a couple of weeks skiing or longing for hotter climes and organising summer breaks.

In fact, Thomas Cook predicts that Britons will take five per cent more overseas trips in 2001 than they did in 2000. About 11 million package holidays and 12 million independent travel trips are likely to be sold this year, the tour operator believes.

Therefore, this time of the year is very busy for travel industry PROs, in both agency and in-house roles.

It is in January and February that the tourism industry traditionally prepares itself for the summer season. According to Lesley Russell, Brighter PR account director, this includes the large tour operators releasing their summer brochures and new operators launching because, she says 'there is a lot of focus within the media on travel and booking holidays'.

Head of corporate affairs at the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA), Keith Betton, pinpoints the day after Boxing Day as the start of the busy winter period as the large tour operators launch advertising campaigns promoting, 'a lot of discounting'.

According to Betton, the key communications issue is helping ensure sufficient numbers of people buy holidays at this time.

This discounting is necessary as a means of enticing people to book early so the travel operators can generate cashflow and gain some indication of trends for the season ahead.

However, buying habits for holidays are changing and more people book later now, according to research carried out by MORI on behalf of ABTA. This found that 73 per cent of British package holidaymakers booked six months prior to travel last year compared with only 27 per cent who booked more than six months in advance.

'The market has shifted a lot over the last five years - later bookings have affected the market,' concurs Fiona Reece, a director at travel specialist PR firm Marketeer.

This trend is the result of changes in the tourism trade and the creation of a more sophisticated consumer and greater choice through special offers. The internet has also impacted on late booking, mainly through low-cost airlines such as easyJet, says Biss Lancaster chairman Graham Lancaster, and the figure responsible for the agency's Jamaica Tourist Board work.

The market has also matured as holiday habits become a lot more fragmented, with the growth in short breaks and an increase in independent travel.

But winter remains an important time for the summer season. As well as newspapers being full of ads for hotspots, there is a lot of editorial.

An important task for any travel PRO is ensuring all-important coverage in the national press for your clients. 'Newspapers such as The Daily Telegraph run their European round-up, and these are articles people rip out and keep as a reference for choosing holiday destinations. It is vital to include our clients in these,' says Reece.

As a decreasing number of summer holidays are booked at the beginning of the year so an increasing number of last-minute winter breaks are being booked because of the same trend towards later bookings.

'Post-Christmas holidays it is dark and cold and people are looking at the late availability of winter breaks,' says Russell. Demand for editorial on ski and winter sun holidays is still strong in January and February.

Another type of press coverage common at the start of the year is from news journalists. ABTA's Betton talks of being inundated with requests from national newspaper journalists desperate to run stories about how many people travelled abroad over the festive period.

The start of the year also sees travel firms gearing up to attract audiences other than the summer package. Independent travellers are an increasingly important audience and airlines such as Qantas prepare their 'seat sale' at the beginning of the year for independent world travellers.

While holidays are uppermost on people's minds, business travelling is not. According to Richard Hedges, American Airlines European corporate communications manager, if anything the start of the year is one of the quietest periods.

'We run a year-round business and our focus is on promoting business travel,' he says. However, Russell denies this and points to the Business Travel Show, which takes place at London's Kensington Olympia in February.

Another busy area at the beginning of the year can also be pitches. 'Historically it is very busy with pitches. I think come the end of the year people are looking for a fresh start,' says Reece.

So the mixture of late and early bookings, together with the fact that tourism - like so many other businesses - is now a year-round affair, makes for a very busy start to the year for travel PROs.

In order to avoid feeling swamped (and in need of an early holiday yourself), Russell recommends strategic time management. 'You have got to prioritise so you have targets, know what you can achieve, plus know what the client demands and what the media demands,' she says.

The types of holidays being booked early in the year may have changed slightly as a result of the growing sophistication of buyers, but the knock-on effect for the travel PR industry means a more creative approach must be explored to achieve results.

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