January is the traditional time for travel companies to capture public attention and sell a huge chunk of their product and this year the UK's four biggest holiday firms - TUI, Thomas Cook, MyTravel and First Choice - are under even greater pressure than usual to create loyalty among customers who are increasingly turned off by package holidays.
According to a recent Travel Trends survey, package holiday share of the travel market has declined from 55 per cent in 1999 to 47 per cent in 2003.
The traditional package-tour operator is falling victim to the trend for holidaymakers to book their accommodation, flights and car hire with different operators.
Alongside the decline in demand for an organised package tour the holiday industry also suffers from an absence of the customer loyalty enjoyed by brands in other sectors. 'People do not necessarily want a holiday from one of the big four,' says Travel Trade Gazette editor John Welsh.
'They want two weeks in Malaga with a special deal and facilities for families. Holidaymakers like this are not specific about brand loyalty.'
Travel company loyalty, says Welsh, is the preserve of smaller and usually very niche players such as Andante Travel, a firm run by archaeologists that runs holidays based around archaeology and ancient history.
In the face of such market fragmentation it is difficult to see how much travel companies can do beyond improving the quality of their holidays and offering niche activities, such as Thomson Holidays and Thomas Cook's on-location football holidays for children.
MyTravel Airways head of comms Lesley Peters says much of her communication strategy revolves around the overall experience of customers - such as the airline's introduction of disposable and trayless in-flight meals - rather than trying to differentiate a particular MyTravel brand.
'Holiday companies have to look at the quality of the holidays they offer.
The only way to ensure brand loyalty is to ensure that the product is something people will want again and again. Through press trips we try to show people what they could be doing with us,' Peters says.
But some of the big four believe they can inject new life in their well-established brands and are actively leveraging the security that their perceived travel expertise has among the holidaying public.
TUI is in the midst of an overhaul in which it is scrapping the Lunn Poly brand from its high-street travel shops and extending the Thomson name across all parts of the business, including its charter fleet Britannia Airways. The moves are part of what TUI UK head of PR Rachel O'Reilly calls the company's 'superbrand' strategy.
O'Reilly says TUI is positioning the company as an all-round travel expert by targeting all sections of the media and making a concerted effort to break out of the travel supplement pages.
As part of this strategy a research department has been added to her team under head of new media Graham Donogue to churn out travel industry statistics and put up TUI spokesmen for news and features on the subject.
'We're playing up the message that we're the experienced experts who know the travel industry inside out and back to front. We have to fight harder for this position by pumping up trends and surveys that journalists can quote from,' O'Reilly says.
Advantage of size
Thomas Cook, the UK's second largest holiday firm, similarly plays on its years of experience status, having organised travel since 1841. A survey for PRWeek sister title Marketing last September found it to be the UK's favourite holiday brand.
'Thomas Cook has the advantage in this area, having the most recognised brand in travel,' says head of PR Bronwen Griffiths.
'Over the past two years we have celebrated the company's most loyal customers, such as a couple who have travelled with Thomas Cook for more than 40 years. Using case studies like these with local and national media has helped reinforce the message that Thomas Cook's top priority is customer service,' she adds.
While the big holiday firms are suffering from customers enjoying the freedom and feeling of adventure in shopping around for all aspects of a holiday, arguably, a big advantage in being an established operator is the security factor.
Family holidaymakers in particular would not want to share the fate of the 1,200 passengers who were stranded overseas after their low-budget carrier, Duo, collapsed last May.
The more established operators can remind punters how larger companies have the resources to protect their customers and react effectively to a crisis. O'Reilly is keen to point out how, when Hurricane Ivan devastated the Cayman Islands in September, TUI rushed to announce it was moving people out of the area.
In climates of fear, the security afforded by the established holiday brands can be turned to their advantage.
'We are playing up the message that we are the experienced experts who know the travel industry inside out and back to front'
Rachel O'Reilly, UK head of PR, TUI
'People do not necessarily want a holiday from the big four. Holidaymakers like this are not specific about brand loyalty'
John Welsh, editor, Travel Trade Gazette.