U.K. tour operators see 'a few bright spots' in U.S. bookings

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Britannia still rules when U.S. travelers plan European vacations. The U.K. remains Americans' favorite Old World destination, but tour operators who sell Britain, still concerned about a stubbornly devalued dollar despite recent, short-lived gains against the pound sterling, are devising strategies to help travel agents encourage clients not to give up on their dream trips.

Alan Dobson of Scots-American Travel Advisors, based in Vero Beach, Fla., said bookings are up in the luxury segment. However, the upscale sales skew results and give a false impression of what's going on. "Our business is holding its own, with a few bright spots," Dobson said.

Other bookings remain steady in his market, mainly the British Isles and France, although the latter seems to be declining, according to Dobson. Among British destinations, Wales has risen in popularity this year. "It's a different destination for the experienced traveler who is always looking for something new," he said. 

Meanwhile, according to Dobson, Scotland will be "huge" in 2009 with a big push in tourism to celebrate the 250th birthday of 18th century poet, lyricist and "national bard" Robert Burns.

U.K. is OK

Looking at the view from the other side of the pond, Paull Tickner of Discover Travel Planners in Worcester, England, said he "loves travel agents."

"I want to make them look good by filling in the big picture and helping them with local knowledge," he added.

For travel in the U.K. and Ireland, Tickner said that what's hot is getting off the beaten track; for example, taking a tour based on Arthurian legends.

"We have to sell harder now, not the standard tour, and know where to get the best deals," he said.

To wit, Tickner develops special-interest and value-added tours for the Anglophile market worldwide. "Travel less and see more" is his mantra. 

Tickner stressed that leisure visitors should "get out of London, base [themselves] in a hub and see the real England." He recommended eschewing congested, expensive Heathrow and Gatwick by using regional or secondary airports in London (Stansted and Luton) or in Birmingham, Bristol and Manchester.

More than just easing clients' trips, agents can make or break a destination. According to Ken Chamberlain, former chairman of the Pacific Asia Travel Association and now a director for Destination Wessex, the U.K.'s ultimate success or failure as a destination lies in the hands of suppliers, operators and agents, not governments. "The future of travel is in the private sector," he said.

Not surprisingly given Chamberlain's stance, Destination Wessex is a nongovernmental organization that markets the somewhat amorphous area consisting mainly of four counties in England: Dorset, Somerset, Wiltshire and Hampshire.

Of particular interest to British-history buffs is the ancient kingdom of Wessex, a land of sacred Neolithic sites, Stonehenge, magical Glastonbury and strong links with the legend of King Arthur. 

Chamberlain said Destination Wessex aims to make it easy for the overseas tour operators and travel agents to encourage clients to go to Wessex and tour a classic countryside rich in sites of ancient English history.

Retailers are able to download up to 60 sample Wessex itineraries plus a list of hotels based entirely on travelers' recommendations at www.destinationwessex.org.uk.

Operators' angles

Some U.S. tour operators selling Britain stress that the U.K. is subject to the same forces  affecting other European, and global, destinations.

Andreas Larentzakis of Key Tours International, based in Fairfax, Va., said that his company, which sells most of Western and Central Europe plus Turkey and the Middle East, has tracked increasing interest in experiential programs such as cooking lessons and wine tours.

And because of the weak U.S. dollar, Americans are going to less-visited places, traveling off-season and for shorter trips, whether in Britain or Europe; a week to 10 days, including travel time, is usual.

"Last year [2007] was our biggest year, up 30% from the previous year," said Larentzakis. "We called 2008 'a consolidation year' and called on our suppliers to come up with attractive prices."

For more on travel to the U.K., head to VisitBritain's website, www.visitbritain.us.

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