There are several different theories on where the phrase “the luck of the Irish” originated from.
But SuperBreak must hope it’s the version that refers to Irish success during the American gold rush that will have most resonance for the tour operator’s imminent launch in the Republic of Ireland.
For a company that has sold exclusively in the UK market, launching into a new territory is a major decision.
And even though the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom have a shared past, there are still plenty of differences.
That is why it has taken the team at SuperBreak 18 months to plan and develop its own dedicated offering for the country. Over tea and coffee at a central London hotel, sales and product director Jane Atkins and national sales manager Graham Balmforth explain the rationale for international expansion. “From the UK we’ve always featured Ireland as a destination – primarily Belfast and Dublin,” says Atkins.
“We made the decision that we needed to internationalise the business as we’ve been very focused on the UK as a source market”
“We made the decision about two years ago that we needed to internationalise the business as we’ve been very focused on the UK as a source market. “Clearly we’ve got a whole load of experience of packaging short breaks in the UK and to Europe, so we thought, why aren’t we taking this experience and this product knowledge to a broader market?”
In Ireland, they see not only an opportunity to sell UK and European breaks to the Irish market, but also an opportunity to sell an expanded range of southern Ireland products to both the Irish domestic market and to its UK customer base.
Making it work
Setting up in Ireland has not been as simple as being able to take euros instead of sterling online, Atkins notes: “We’ve had to build a whole new website; it’s also about how you cost the product, and having a euro bank account.”
The new website, which will take both agent and direct bookings, is being tested, and travel agents in the Republic of Ireland will receive one of 100,000 52-page brochures covering both domestic trips and short breaks abroad in January. According to Atkins, there are no other operators offering equivalent packages to Irish customers, and with the Irish market taking an estimated 1.5 million domestic short breaks every year, the domestic potential alone is huge.
“Agents in Ireland might be booking their clients to America but those clients are also taking a short break the agent doesn’t know about. At the moment, domestic breaks are a part of the jigsaw that Irish agents cannot place,” she claims.
The operator has done commercial deals with each of the country’s three major agency consortia, and SuperBreak has secured a CAR licence – Ireland’s equivalent of an Atol – to sell fully protected packages. Even with such a big opportunity on offer, Atkins is cautious about pushing too hard. Brand awareness is weaker in Ireland among both consumers and agents, and agent training will need to be a core focus.
So the first quarter of next year will be all about bedding the product in. “Once we’ve settled in, I’m thinking conservatively that about 20,000 annual bookings would be a good result. It’s hard to gauge but that’s just based on population, number of travel agents, number of trips that we know are taken and a really conservative share of that,” she says.
SuperBreak has been busy adding extra transport and accommodation to its portfolio, to cater for the anticipated surge in demand from both the Irish and the UK market. The number of hotels on offer in Ireland has been bumped up from 50 to 150 with an ultimate target of 300. Deals have been signed with a train operator to offer rail inclusive breaks, and there are agreements with major ferry firms and airlines.
“If you’re coming from the UK for a short break in Dublin you’ll probably fly, but if you want to go to Killarney or Waterford it may make more sense to take your car on the ferry and do self-drive,” says Balmforth. And now that SuperBreak has the technology to sell ferry travel, it hopes that self-drive breaks can be expanded to other destinations.
“It works for Christmas markets in Lille and northern France, for example, where the ferry make sense,” he adds. For the time being, this additional Ireland product will be absorbed into SuperBreak’s main brochure, one of seven brochures distributed to UK agents. ‘We’re still trying to understand the size of the prize, but my view is that we will have a standalone Ireland brochure for UK agents eventually,” Atkins suggests.
The last time TTG sat down with SuperBreak, it was about to embark on a major rebrand, which included a new logo and its first-ever television advertising campaign. “The brand recognition has improved on the back of the relaunch and some of the other work we’ve done,” says Atkins. Although the company has chosen to expand overseas, Atkins is keen to stress that this move doesn’t mean the UK has been exhausted.
“We know there’s 53 million breaks taken in the UK; unfortunately, I can disclose that we don’t do that many holidays,” she jokes, before adding: “So, no, I don’t think the market is exhausted.” Abta’s Holiday Habits report released in October shows that city breaks continued to be the most popular type of holiday, with 54% of those surveyed having taken one in the 12 months to August 2015.
Domestically, the picture is more mixed. Statistics from VisitEngland show that holidays of between one and three nights in Great Britain made up 30% of all trips taken in 2014 (the same as 2013). However, the total number of domestic breaks taken has fallen. Two years ago there were 36.8 million short breaks taken but last year the number had dropped to 33.9 million.
Last month’s terrorist attack in Paris has been a more recent challenge for the operator. Atkins and Balmforth recall how they had around 150 bookings in the French capital at the time, and had to ensure a clear message was delivered to customers. Senior members of staff held a conference call on the Saturday morning and a strategy was put in place.
Customers who had booked to travel up until the end of the Monday were allowed to cancel. Balmforth says: “From a horrible situation, you could see the best in people.” Understandably, the attack hit sales in the immediate aftermath. “Clearly we’re not doing as many bookings to Paris as we were eight weeks ago,” says Atkins.
“But we have since had some pre-Christmas bookings for Paris, so it’s coming back already,” she adds. Overall, the pair report a strong year for SuperBreak, with both its UK programme and European programme up compared to last year. They also describe their “cautious optimism” for 2016, with new theatre shows such as Aladdin, Motown and Funny Girl expected to bring a boost to London specifically.
Its launch into the Irish market is sure to keep SuperBreak busy in the year ahead, but if it is able to “find gold” there, the operator hints it could be the first of other European source markets it could work with. “Ireland is obviously a great opportunity to get some expertise in transacting in euros,” Atkins admits. “We thought, where do we dip our toes in the water? This is the first step for the future.”