Bridging the gap between operators, agents and affiliates in the industry, Aito is synonymous with high-quality holidays and best practice. Abigail Healy hears how it has benefited three members.
Established in 1976 as an alliance of specialist, independent operators, Derek Moore, chairman of the Association of Independent Tour Operators (Aito), explains that while its original aims of lobbying and mutual support are still key today, the association has also come to “represent a range of other key matters that are important to the travelling public.”
These include high standards of customer care, knowledgeable and personal service, good value no matter what the holiday costs, and advocacy for sustainable tourism.
The association now counts around 100 independent agents as members too, as well as a number of affiliated tourist boards and other travel trade suppliers.
Moore adds: “In 2017, Aito is a cohesive force that delivers advice, support and mutual marketing opportunities to an exciting range of niche and specialist organisations that share similar values and focus on customer care, whatever the myriad destinations worldwide they promote.”
But what does the association mean to these agent members? Gemma Antrobus, chair of Aito Specialist Travel Agents, says: “We look to Aito specialist operators to deliver sparkling and often unusual holiday ideas to inspire our discerning clients, no matter what world events, airline problems and so on throw at us.
We see ourselves as a strong partnership that, together, delivers more than the sum of the individual parts.
“Aito operators create fully bonded holidays, and take full responsibility for everything within those holidays by acting as principals, both of which provide important protection to our clients in a world of weasly web trip vendors of dubious quality. Like Aito operators, Aito agents care about standards and high-quality service.”
So how does this partnership manifest in day-to-day life? We hear from three agents each with an example of how their Aito membership has impacted their business.
Carolyn Park, C The World, developed a fruitful professional relationship with Aito operator Inside Japan over bowls of noodle soup. She outlines how co-hosting an event was a success for both parties.
We have always organised client events and tried to make them different and appealing for attendees. With an influx of interest in Japan what better opportunity than to team up with our most local Aito operator partner, Inside Japan, and host a casual ramen supper at a local Japanese restaurant in Bristol?
Many of the guests had already made tentative enquiries about Japan. We knew all the Inside Japan consultants had lived and worked in the destination so it made total sense to hand our clients over to them for the evening. They were able to ask all those detailed questions and get a first-hand perspective on travelling in Japan.
At that stage none of the C The World team had been lucky enough to visit Japan and while we had a good overall knowledge, having the Inside Japan team on hand made the whole process so much easier.
A short presentation with lots of great ideas got everyone thinking about which areas they wanted to visit and the clients loved the fact that their questions were answered immediately.
Working alongside Inside Japan for the evening also resulted in a training session of sorts for our team. Such was the positive feedback that we were putting itineraries together the next week and from an attendance of 12 I think all but 4 have now been to Japan – not a bad return for a couple of hours and a bowl of noodles.
Some agents commented that we were “brave” to partner with a tour operator that was very local to us that also takes direct bookings. These were most definitely not Aito agents!
The whole Aito ethos of working together was beautifully demonstrated with this event, and it has resulted in many happy clients having wonderful experiences on their holidays.
It was largely down to the detailed planning in partnership between us and Inside Japan – we know our clients well and they know the destination inside out.
Charlie Panton, Putney Travel Company, attended Aito’s Overseas Conference, held in Jordan, for the first time last year and explains what he learned.
Putney Travel had joined Aito Agents in the summer so it seemed a good idea to go along to the overseas conference – the fact it was being held in Jordan made it a must.
I’d always heard it was a good event – excellent business sessions combined with great fun – and it seemed a perfect opportunity to meet the Aito family (operators, affiliates and agents) and reacquaint myself with Jordan after a 20-year gap. The conference far exceeded all expectations – both on the business side and by seeing most of Jordan’s highlights.
Friday was an action-packed business day – the keynote speeches stood out and all sessions were thought provoking with ideas to take away. Working around the tables with Aito operators gave me a new insight on how we can work together. For instance, how good would it be if all sales teams acknowledged us as an Aito agent when we called?
The fam element of the trip was extremely well organised. I loved Jerash and the drive there from the Jordan Valley and through the hilly countryside north of Amman.
The Oval Forum and walking into an empty North Theatre were highlights, as was Petra. Approaching through the back door, along a section of the Jordan Trail, set the stage for a great day in this amazing site.
In terms of what I learned, networking with the range of operators and affiliates was very useful – so many ideas were circulating – and meeting other independent agents was very valuable.
Ian Prior of Westway Travel is one of the hosts for the Aito Agent Networking Dinners. He explains why they are must-attend events for agents.
While historically these dinners have been about networking, I like to think they are awareness dinners. You are able to meet and network but each operator then has 10 minutes to present their product.
The awareness comes about because we deliberately chose tour operators that are non-mainstream: for example, Can Be Done, Chic Locations, Great Rail Journeys, Tribes Travel.
These are the people you don’t typically get to meet, but the dinner presents this opportunity. Within a week of one of the events we had made bookings with three of the six operators in attendance and had outlined commercial planning with two others.
The key point was that we should not be supporting operators that are commercially in competition with us. That may be operators with their own retail outlets, or the big vertically integrated companies that have a stranglehold on the market, that could easily end up becoming a competitor of ours.
We need to be supporting our fellow independent operators that want to work with us, not against us.
The dinners give agents the opportunity to ask very specific questions; it’s an investigation process and an opportunity to go deeper.
For example, we live in an ageing population and older people need to travel but also need the support overseas, and operator Can Be Done is able to provide that support.
The event also reaffirmed the fact that we aren’t selling holidays, we’re selling life memories, or as Amanda from Tribes Travel suggested – we’re creating stories. I thought that was an interesting way of articulating an age-old message. We forget to do that sometimes.