Is ABTA making a big fuss about nothing?

Despite falling membership, ABTA travel agents are selling more holidays than ever. ABTA still feels it needs to advertise, though. By Lucy Barrett

For years, package holidaymakers have been warned of the perils of booking a holiday with a travel agent that is not a member of the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA).

Consistently bombarded with horror stories in newspapers and on television programmes such as ITV1’s Holidays from Hell and BBC1’s Watchdog, consumers should by now be well aware of how wrong some holidays can go.

Yet, even faced with multiple warnings, consumers seem to be increasingly happy to cut out the middle man. Over the past ten years, there has been a sharp rise in the number of holidaymakers creating their own packages, often using the Internet to book transport and accommodation.

To combat this growing trend, ABTA is preparing to launch an advertising campaign this autumn to warn consumers of the dangers of not using an intermediary. The campaign, created by Summerfield Wilmot Keane & Partners (SWK), will carry the strapline “Without us you are on your own”.

Given the fallout from September 11 and consumers’ consequent general reluctance to travel, it seems ironic that the travel industry is more concerned with hitting out at non-ABTA holiday providers than with promoting holidays abroad.

ABTA was set up in 1950 as a trade body to act as a “spokesman” and lobby group for the travel industry.

A Thomson Holidays spokesman says: “ABTA is good at co-ordinating issues. For instance, it was able to act on everyone’s behalf when the issue of an ‘eco tax’ [an extra charge of E1 a day for each holidaymaker] for Majorca was first raised.” ABTA failed to have the tax repealed, however.

But, while ABTA travel agents and tour operators claim that booking with them provides peace of mind, consumers are becoming increasingly independent. With the rise of low-cost airlines and Internet bookings, people can arrange holidays without joining the queue in the travel agent.

The trend has been accompanied by a decrease in ABTA membership. Ten years ago, ABTA had 3,000 members – this figure has fallen to 2,000. ABTA argues this is a result of consolidation within the sector and that members’ total income has not been affected – 90 per cent of UK package holidays are sold through ABTA members.

An ABTA spokeswoman says: “Of the 36 million holidays sold each year, 20 million are package holidays.”

If ABTA’s figures are correct, this means that 18 million holidays a year are booked through ABTA agents – in which case it seems strange that the association has come under pressure to invest in a campaign to convince consumers of something the majority of them already seem to know.

One independent travel agent, who sells specialist holidays to the Greek Islands, says: “I’m pretty sure it won’t be a large-scale campaign. I think it’s just ABTA responding to a few whinges. They do this sort of thing every year.”

Indeed, the campaign will have a media spend of just £200,000, as the majority of ABTA’s communication budget is spent on public relations.

Nor will the campaign highlight another issue of concern: as more people turn to the Internet to book both travel and accommodation, they often neglect to buy travel insurance. An ABTA member travel agent will insist that holidaymakers buy insurance, or prove that they have holiday insurance. This raises the question of why consumers need ABTA’s protection if they already have insurance.

The ABTA spokeswoman defends the association: “There are good examples, wherever you look, of why it is important to have ABTA protection.

“Look at the recent flooding in Europe – most travel insurance does not cover for this kind of event. If you had booked to go to Prague with an ABTA agent you would be entitled to a full refund. If you booked the holiday other than through an ABTA travel agent, you are unlikely to be covered for natural disasters with ordinary holiday insurance.”

In order to protect consumers’ holidays in 1999, ABTA paid out £2.8m after travel agents’ failures, and £88,000 after tour operators’ failures.

One travel analyst says: “One thing people know for sure – whether or not they book though an ABTA agent – is that you are not guaranteed to have a fantastic holiday.

“I think the majority of people who book independently are going to the sort of places where they won’t be subjected to the sort of horrors that we read about. They are either roughing it as a backpacker, which has its own pitfalls, or going for luxury, in which case they can afford to get themselves out of a mess.”

Whether it is a luxury holiday, or a bargain-bucket last-minute break, it is difficult to find a travel agent that is not a member of ABTA. This may be because such operators do not tend to be in high street locations.

Of those that do exist, many do not want to pay ABTA to become a member – annual fees range from £515 to over £50,000. According to ABTA’s spokeswoman: “There is usually a problem with them not meeting our financial criteria.”

Whatever concerns ABTA members have about losing business to non-specialist operators, business would seem to be buoyant. According to recent figures from the association, the number of package holidays sold by ABTA agents is up three per cent year on year. Considering the problems faced by the travel sector as a whole in the past year, it would seem ABTA’s members don’t have too much to worry about.

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