AGTO’s landmark year ends on high

The Association of Group Travel Organisers (AGTO) turned 25 this year. To celebrate, it held a bumper Showcase Weekend at Norwich's QHotels Dunston Hall Hotel, attended by 150, who had the opportunity to see the area

The 150 delegates who attended AGTO's 25th Anniversary Showcase Weekend at Dunston Hall Hotel in Norwich were told that 2016 has been a ‘landmark year’ for the Association.

AGTO Chief Executive, Mike Bugsgang (standing second left) and three of AGTO’s new Directors, Tina Price, Natalie Browne and Brian Langford (all standing)

The Showcase Weekend, which had Made Tourism Marketing as headline sponsor, brought together group organiser and associate members together with coach operators from all over the UK, to participate in a programme of business sessions, networking and familiarisation visits.

'Landmark year'

Mike Bugsgang, Chief Executive says: “2016 has been a landmark year for the Association, which has seen it go from strength to strength. Not only have we been celebrating our Silver Anniversary but at the AGM in January, we rebranded from GTOA to AGTO.”

Participants heard how the recent rebranding exercise had helped to raise AGTO’s profile amongst various audiences. To ensure that the views of the group travel sector were considered in discussions with government and legislators, AGTO has also joined the Tourism Alliance.

The newly launched Ambassador Recruitment scheme aimed at signing up more group tour organisers to the Association has also started very positively this year. “I was greatly encouraged by the response from both GTO and Associate members to the Ambassador Recruitment scheme," says Mike. "Both sets of delegates attending the Showcase said they would give their wholehearted support to this initiative, which bodes well for attracting new GTOs into membership."

'Easy and low-cost'

Speaking during the business session, marketing expert Jason Triandafyllou, Partner with Brighton-based marketing agency Designate, provided tips about how group tour organisers can market themselves more effectively.

Mike Bugsgang and AGTO Directors celebrate the Association’s 25th Anniversary at the Showcase Weekend

While acknowledging that most of the audience were not marketers, he said group tour organisers shared the common purpose of arranging trips for likeminded people, in their spare time. They wanted to attract and ‘recruit’ people to go on their trips as easily and as cost-effectively as possible and to run as many trips as they could.

With these criteria in mind, he suggested any marketing that they embarked upon needed to be “easy, and above all, low-cost.” He suggested they should be creative with tours and itineraries while arranging trips, together with knowing their market well.

Domestic increase

The audience heard that the number of trips abroad made by UK residents has increased by 18% between 2010 and 2015 to some 65.7 million visits. As far as the domestic market is concerned, British residents took a total of 1,525m tourism day visits in 2015 to destinations in England, Scotland or Wales, and around £54bn was spent during these trips.

Data provided by VisitBritain shows that different age groups are seeking different types of experiences. So for the younger visitors it might be more activity-based, thrill-seeking, while an older age profile might be interested in visiting a stately home or gardens followed by afternoon tea. Learning experiences such as cooking and craft are also enjoying a boost in popularity.

Jason suggested that building a sales strategy incorporating social media and technology should be near the top of any group tour organiser’s marketing activity. Placing the online world into context, he said 87.9% of adults in the UK, some 45.9m users, have recently used the internet, while statistics show that recent internet use in the 65-74 age group has increased by 68.7% since 2011. Women aged 75 and over are responsible for the largest rise in recent Internet use, up 169% since 2011.

He highlighted social media as a ‘free’ marketing opportunity open to all, which he entertainingly described as ‘networking on steroids’. Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, Instagram and Pinterest all offer opportunities, with one million new active users signing up to social media every day. YouTube is also a fantastic resource and a great tool for showing off locations visually.

AGTO GTO Kent Branch member Jim Sylvester said: “The session was particularly informative and provided me with some food for thought in terms of communicating with my group participants.”

Introduction to East Anglia

Concluding the business session, guest speaker Pete Waters, Executive Director of Visit East Anglia, highlighted some of the investment that has been made into the region’s local attractions including the new café and visitor centre at Holkham, Hunstanton SeaLife and Sanctuary, and developments at Pensthorpe Natural Park. These projects alone had seen investment of nearly £9m.

Eastons Coaches outside the Dunston Hall Hotel, Norwich, about to depart on three fams

He said East Anglia contributes some £3.1bn to the tourism economy in the UK. It's a lesser-known destination with an “incredible” offering and the aim is to offer a year-round visitor economy and to convert day-trippers to ‘stay visitors'.

New upgraded road links to the county have made Norfolk’s countryside even easier for visitors to get to. It's all positive developments that he hopes will attract more group business to the region in the future.

Joan Hanks, GTO member of AGTO’s Eastern Branch, says: “Pete Waters' presentation gave me some great ideas for itineraries for 2017 and it is good to hear about the improvements to the road network in the county and the investment in attractions.”

East Anglian fams

As part of the weekend, Visit East Anglia arranged fam trips for delegates to the surrounding area. They were ‘Norwich and Suffolk’ – a walking tour of the city including visits to Norwich Cathedral, Banham Zoo and Melford Hall; ‘Deep History Coast’ – visiting Cromer Pier and Sandringham; and ‘Great Yarmouth and The Broads’ – touring Wroxham Barns, Great Yarmouth Pleasure Beach and concluding with a paddle steamer trip on the Norfolk Broads.

Local East Anglia producers and suppliers were also given the opportunity to showcase their wares during the weekend. Transport was provided by Norfolk-based Eastons Coaches.

Celebrating 25

After the business session, some 38 AGTO Associate members took part in the Showcase where delegates had an opportunity to visit their stands to discuss future business opportunities.

Oliver Tompsett and Emma Hatton sang songs from West End musicals at the 25th Anniversary dinner

Brian Langford of coach operator Lucketts Travel said: “This proved to be highly productive. I was impressed with the interest shown in Lucketts by group organisers."

To conclude the weekend delegates attended a special anniversary dinner to celebrate AGTO’s Silver Anniversary. AGTO’s Board of Directors cut a celebration cake to mark the event and there was a prize draw with vouchers for group holidays donated by HF Holidays and Just for Groups.

Diners were treated to some West End entertainment provided by headline sponsor Made Tourism Marketing.

Emma Hatton, fresh from starring as Elphaba in Wicked, and Oliver Tompsett, who played Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls at the Phoenix Theatre, performed a stirring repertoire of songs from West End musicals including Wicked and Les Miserables.

'Surge in the future'

Mike Bugsgang says: “We had a tremendous reception in Norwich and had an opportunity to sample first-hand the best that the region has to offer. I am confident that our positive experiences will lead to a surge in group tourism to the region in the future.

"Everybody was delighted with the weekend overall and we are indebted to headline sponsor Made Tourism Marketing for providing great entertainment on the last night of the Showcase.

“The event once again demonstrated AGTO’s pre-eminent role as a focal point for networking and business development in the group travel sector."