CIO Mark Thompson of TUI's spirit of adventure

The travel and tourism sector has had to climb some major mountains of late. Nature has thrown volcanic ash and snowstorms into flight paths, banks have brought the world economy to a grinding halt and new internet and budget operators have gone bust overnight, leaving holidaymakers stranded. For established travel operators like TUI Travel, however, there has been an upside as its brand strength has seen it gain custom as travellers seek ­security from trusted providers.

Mark Thompson is IT director for TUI’s Specialist & Activity division, one of the fastest growing areas of the travel sector. Crawley-based TUI has four main areas of business: mainstream, which operates the well known package holiday brands like Thomson and First Choice; Accommodation, which sets up the hotel deals; emerging markets; and Specialist & Activity.

Thompson’s PC screen displays a slide showing the 85 separate company brands which make up TUI Specialist & Activity travel; in the last two years a new company has joined his own portfolio every month.

“With plasticine, if you push all the colours together you end up with a horrible brown mess. As a business and in IT we try to avoid that,” Thompson explains of the delicate way TUI manages its various brands and operational centres. “We have a light touch. As a customer you get the expertise of a specialist, but the security of the world’s largest tour operator.”

TUI Specialist & Activity divides into six specific groups — Adventure, Education, Marine, North America, Sport and Specialist — and each group operates a number of brands.

At this time of year, for instance, one of the busiest areas is the ski holiday business that includes brands such as Crystal, Hays & Jarvis and Citalia. The TUI umbrella ­offers services to the brands to ensure that tours are fully booked and deliver a return on investment.

“A trip to Kilimanjaro needs to have 10 people on it to run, so if the Exodus brand and The Adventure Company have six booked each, we are able to pull the two tours together to make sure a tour happens,” Thompson explains. The rising interest in alternative types of holiday has extended right across the financial spectrum of TUI’s customers. Its Marine arm, for instance, offers holidays ranging from introductions for those looking to learn how to sail, through to a spell in a fully crewed craft in the British Virgin Islands.

“In the last two and a half years our sport division has been growing well as more people travel to Champions League games or to the Olympics. We also provide­ event management for sports teams and organisations.

“This part of the business was a bit ‘lumpy’ to begin with as it depended on major events like the Rugby World Cup but now we are covering all the top sporting events, that lumpiness is going,” he says.

Another growth sector for Specialist & Activity has been its Education division, which provides school trip services.

“What we’ve seen in Education is that the success of this business is through the relationship we build with the teachers arranging the trips,” he says.

TUI has been gaining business from a new breed of teacher who is used to booking and organising travel through the web and is therefore comfortable with online experience.

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