First Choice's challenges

campaignlive.co.uk, Thursday, 16 August 2007 04:08PM

Dermot Blastland, First Choice’s managing director of mainstream holidays, talks about new planes, trips to the North Pole, sustainable development and the importance of the internet within the travel industry

Dermot Blastland, the managing director of mainstream holidays at First Choice, joined the company in 1999. He has spent his whole career in the travel industry, including previous stints at Thomson Holidays and Portland Holidays, and is the group board director at First Choice with responsibility for sustainable development. First Choice is merging with TUI, Europe’s biggest travel company.

On starting out My girlfriend at the time showed me a college course for Business Studies combined with Tourism, which I applied for and got accepted on before her. Having completed the course, I then joined Thomson Holidays and have been in travel ever since.

On my favourite holiday destination I don’t have one. I like my place in France, yachting in the Greek Islands, safari in Tanzania, touring in Ireland.

On the rise of à la carte holidays, independent travel and the premium sector Society is older and more affluent than it has ever been, so premium product and flexibility will be more and more important in the future.
Our parent company, First Choice Holidays plc, has spent the past ten years acquiring and building up its specialist and premium operators, including brands such as Sunsail, Exodus, Hayes and Jarvis and Sovereign, to name but a few. Meanwhile, the First Choice brand itself has moved more upmarket – we’ve just launched a Premier Luxury brochure featuring our finest hotels and our long-haul flights offer more legroom than many scheduled carriers.

On holidays to the North Pole Well, its lack of four-star hotels means it won’t be hitting the mass market for a while, but our sister company Quark operates Polar expeditions, which prove rather popular with more adventurous clientele.

On the likelihood of continuing consolidation within the travel industry  There has been a lot of talk about consolidation in travel over the past five years, but it has finally happened – by the end of this year, the big four will be the big two. Like all maturing industries, you see consolidation into very large well-run organisations.

On the probable impact of a new generation of aircraft from Boeing and Airbus First Choice Airways is the UK launch customer for the Boeing 787 – an aircraft that has 20 per cent less emissions and can fly as far as Hawaii non-stop.This remarkable plane has a huge number of other features that will set it apart from the rest, ranging from changes in the way cabins are pressurised, meaning customers feel better at the end of a long flight, to technological advances allowing it to avoid turbulence, resulting in a smoother flight.

On sustainable development in the leisure travel industry Overseas holidays are an enormous force for good and are the biggest source of income and employment for many third-world countries.Not to fly to these destinations would cause huge harm to the well-being of millions of people. So tourism is important – but it has to be done responsibly and in a way that complies with the need to reduce the world’s CO2 emissions.Additionally, we are looking at reducing the carbon output of the hotels we use, the use of local food by hotels, the support of carbon offset payments in conjunction with Climate Care and lastly, the support of the reduction of destruction of the world’s rainforests. Overall, our objective as a business is to be carbon neutral within five years.

On inviting customers to lobby Gordon Brown over proposals to introduce a new tax – Air Passenger Duty The APD issue is just nonsense – how can you have a so-called green tax that isn’t being used for anything related to the environment? And we had to pay it retrospectively. In other words, we had to pay £5 million of our own money and none of it went towards helping the environment. We know action has to be taken to lessen the impact we all have on the world, but this is simply not the best way to do it and we believe the tax has been imposed illegally. The Federation of Tour Operators recently took the Government to court to prove this and we are currently awaiting an outcome. More than 55,000 customers have signed our petition demanding the tax be reviewed – so they clearly agree with us.

On digital advertising Obviously the web is a major distribution channel for us and our advertising spend reflects this, especially with the search engines.

On whether ad agencies are rising to the new challenges The challenges are the same as they always have been – to connect with people emotionally, while letting them know about our great products and prices. Whether the media channel is via a 17-inch computer screen or a 42-inch plasma screen, agencies still need to come up with big ideas that get people excited.

On whether digital is a friend or foe For holiday companies, the internet is wonderful. It is now the biggest route to market for First Choice and enables us to deal directly with our customers. The winning combination is to offer the phone, web and shops, and let the customer use each contact point the way that suits them. For travel, social networking sites such as Trip Advisor and Trip Planner are an increasingly important destination in people’s holiday research. According to Hitwise, Trip Advisor is one of the top 30 up and downstream sites from the travel agency category, demonstrating its increasing importance. There are hundreds of similar business models being spawned within the travel sector, many of which will fall off the radar very soon. The sector’s focus has to be on providing a platform for robust, independent and segmented reviews – I’m not too bothered that a bunch of 18-year-old boys out to drink as much as they can didn’t like Puerto Pollensa because it was too quiet. However, if someone of a similar demographic profile or purchase behaviour rated it poorly on safety for children, it would resonate with me.

On a big idea for the future of the travel business On 3 September, we plan to become one of the world’s largest leisure travel companies  – that’s big enough to keep us busy for the time being.

On a big idea for the future in any field I have no idea. But I will pinch someone else’s when I see one.

If you live on planet Earth, you will have heard of Russell Davies, Campaign columnist and blogger extraordinaire. He trailed this interview on his blog recently and we invited people to submit questions for Dermot. Here’s one of the best, posted by Alasdair:

What’s going to be the impact of social networking sites on your business?
Clearly, there is massive growth in the use of social networks, as evidenced by the phenomenal take-off of Facebook in the UK. However, some commentators say that participation in Web 2.0 technologies is lower than expected. Jakob Nielsen, the user experience guru, argues that a 90-9-1 rule exists for most online communities, where 90 per cent merely visit a site and don’t contribute, 9 per cent will participate occasionally and 1 per cent will generate the majority of content.


Got any questions for Yahoo!’s next guest, who is Syl Saller, the global director of Innovation at Diageo? Write and tell us at
http://tinyurl.com/3e4c8t

The Yahoo! Big Idea Chair shines a spotlight on people and companies whose creative work is truly remarkable.  See yahoo.co.uk/media for more details.

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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