Aito Specialist Travel Agents

Our members represent some of the very best independent travel agents in the UK. They have access to a wide range of specialist brochures - many not available from other travel agents.

Friday, 10 January 2014

AITO Specialist Travel Agents’ domestic conference 2014

A wide-ranging programme of activity is planned for AITO Agents’ annual gathering of independent agents and operators

AITO Specialist Travel Agents is pleased to unveil the programme for its domestic conference 2014 - taking place this weekend (11-12 January 2014) at the prestigious Drayton Manor Hotel in Staffordshire, set amongst acres of lakes and parkland, moments away from Drayton Manor Theme Park, home of Thomasland.

This year’s domestic conference is sponsored jointly by two AITO operators - If Only and Classic Collection Holidays - and will feature Paul Chapman, of Nigel Botterill’s Entrepreneurs Circle, as the guest speaker. Paul will talk to delegates in depth about the secrets behind how businesses often become so successful.

Workshops and numerous important announcements, such as the overall national winner of the AITO All Stars incentive scheme 2013, will also take place.

AITO Agents’ domestic conference 2014 programme:

Speaker programme:

Paul Chapman, Business Growth Advisor at Nigel Botterill’s Entrepreneurs Circle (pictured), will be sharing his tips with delegates on ‘The 18 things that super successful business owners know and do that most business owners either don’t know or don’t do’. Paul will also be available in the marketplace to expand on his ideas further. The Entrepreneurs Circle is the UK's largest resource dedicated to helping passionate business owners achieve the success they desire. The Entrepreneurs Circle is packed full of practical, usable and easy-to-implement information to help business owners.

Chairman of AITO Specialist Travel Agents, Oliver Broad, says: Our domestic conference is the largest gathering of members of the independent travel sector in the UK.  The industry issues panel on Sunday morning is important to ensure we are up to date with the latest concerns of the independent sector. With key members of the industry attending, including ABTA Chairman Noel Josephides, we are excited as to what will be discussed.  The theme ‘Reasons to be Cheerful’ echoes the feedback we have received from members who are seeing significant signs of improvement.  Sales from our members were 15% up in 2013 compared to 2012 and we are all eager to find out what 2014 will bring, as consumer confidence increases.


AITO Agents typically sell holidays offered by AITO - a collection of more than 120 specialist tour operators, covering the world with an unrivalled selection of trips. A ‘speed-dating’ style face-to-face marketplace on the first day of the domestic conference will offer agents the chance to learn more about unique and inspiring trips offered by operators, including the newest members to join the AITO portfolio. This will be in addition to the main marketplace on the following day, which is one of the largest gatherings of independent agents and operators in the travel industry calendar.


During the conference’s All Stars Awards Ceremony - sponsored by the AITO operator, Anatolian Sky Holidays – an array of award wins will be revealed, including the overall national and regional winners of the AITO All Stars incentive scheme 2013, which recognises those AITO Agents who have achieved the best results when selling holidays offered by AITO. Other awards will include ‘best newcomer’ and ‘most improved AITO Agent’, as well as ‘the AITO Shining Star’, for the individual who has shown significant commitment to supporting AITO over the past 12 months.

The winners will receive top prizes courtesy of AITO operators, including complimentary nights in Oman and the Maldives with Lusso Travel, and a free weekend at Kasbah du Toubkal with Discover Ltd. Each winner will also receive a place on the 2014 AITO Familiarisation trip to Monaco, courtesy of Classic Collection Holidays.

Friday, 15 November 2013

AITO Agent, Journeys à la Carte, named Best Travel Agent at the Guardian, Observer and Readers' Travel Awards 2013...again!

For the fourth time, AITO Agent Journeys à la Carte has scooped the 'Best Travel Agent' award at the prestigious Guardian, Observer and Readers' Travel Awards 2013!

The Staffordshire-based independent agent came first place, beating off stiff competition from the likes of Worldwide Escapes, Sports Tours International, i-escape and Simpson Travel. This is a real achievement for a totally independent single-office agency, and AITO are very proud of its success.
Margaret May of Journeys à la Carte said: “We’re so thrilled to have won this prestigious award yet again! I truly believe it’s due to the team’s continued hard work - we always pay particular attention to detail, ensure we’re reliable, friendly and approachable, and most importantly we build strong and lasting relationship with our clients. We’re having an even more successful year than last year and I am extremely proud of our conscientious and talented team!”

Well done to the array of other AITO operators who also received awards, including Inntravel, Original Travel, Audley Travel, McKinlay Kidd, Inside Japan Tours and Voyages Jules Verne. View all of the winners here.

Congratulations to everyone! 

Friday, 4 October 2013

FAM trip report - exploring Kerala with If Only!

Simon Holmes of Classic Travel journeys to Kerala with If Only

Classic Travel loves a fam trip. Every week we seem to be a staff member short as one of our agents has gallivanted off to some far flung paradise.  Our agents love being part of such trips not just for a bit more sun but because they are a very important sales tool and increase our knowledge of popular locations more than any guide book ever can.  We feel it is vital that our agents go on one or two excursions per year for their and our benefit.

I was very fortunate to be invited on If Only's inaugural fam trip to Kerala or 'God's own country' as it is affectionately known.  Despite Kochi, the state's second city and our first port of call, undergoing the construction of a new metro it didn't take long to work out why the state has received such praise. Everywhere you turn there seems to be a Hindu Temple, Mosque or Church and seemingly little religious tension among residents. Whilst beyond the cities the state's prolific monsoon season has created a lush green landscape filled with unruly forests and incredible diversity in its flora, fauna and wildlife. 

With Kerala being one of the most prosperous Indian states and described as "India Light" by our exceptional tour guide Sinnah, culture shock was not an issue within the group.  However there was little time to adjust to our new surroundings as we arrived at the beginning of the Onam festival celebrations, the harvest festival of Kerala.  Our first hotel, the Brunton Boatyard, in Fort Kochi had numerous and beautiful floral designs called Pookalam's in the lobby and after admiring the intricate patterns of these we were ushered in the hotel's restaurant for a traditional festival lunch, a Sadya.  A Sadya is served on plantain leaves and can have more than fifteen curries, and in keeping with tradition we ate with our hands. I think I make less mess on the table with chopsticks! 

On our first full day in India we were given a tour of Fort Kochi and saw the famous Chinese fishing nets in action. We even tried our hand in lifting the nets with our most notable catch being an inedible Jelly-Fish. We were given a taste of the countries vibrant street life and Cochin's interesting colonial past taking in the Jew Town and St Francis' Church where Vasco de Gama was buried until being laid to rest finally in Belem, Portugal.

After two nights in the states second city we set off early (well early for Travel Agents) to journey south to Periyar Tiger Reserve where we stayed in the excellent Spice Village Resort. Along the way we stopped off at a fascinating tea plantation to see the complex process of tea making first-hand.  Upon arriving at our resort we were given a cooking class and a protein rich dinner to prepare us for ourjungle trek commencing at seven the following morning.

Perhaps our fifth day in Kerala was the most memorable for me. During the jungle trek we spotted Lion-tailed macaques, Great Hornbills, various squirrels, a scorpion and many leeches. Typically, a leech infiltrated my extra leggings and drew some blood whilst I had a near miss with the Scorpion after jumping over it to get a better angle for a photo.  The afternoon provided even more excitement as we travelled by boat across a man-made waterway to the Lake Palace Hotel.  By our boat's jetty we saw a Rat Snake whilst during the journey we saw deer, Kingfisher, a lizard and a wild boar from the hotel's ground. To finish an already eventful day we visited an elephant camp where we rode, fed and washed them whilst a few brave members of the group (not me) were washed themselves by an elephant. I think I will stick to showers.
After an eventful stay in the jungle we departed for the Coconut Lagoon resort in Kumarakom by the coast and famous backwaters. The hotel is only accessible by boat and during the short journey we passed many rice boats and fruit bats.  Upon reaching the luxurious hotel we relaxed by the pool before being entrusted with vegetable chopping and peeling duties in the kitchen in preparation for Onam celebrations the following day.  Needless to say we impressed the locals with our cookery skills!

To celebrate the festival most of the group woke early to make an 'If Only' themed Pookalam, much to Neil's delight. Whilst for lunch we enjoyed another Sadya with the ladies dressed in sahri's and men in mundu loin cloth (not skirts).  In the evening we were treated to an exquisite seafood dinner in the resort’s specialist sea food restaurant.

In the morning we set off on the bumpy road for the Marari Beach resort in Mararikulam for the last leg of our South India adventure, by the beach. On the way we were lucky enough to enjoy a rice boat tour that showed us the extraordinary backwaters. Sailing down the narrow canals we saw people bathing and washing their clothes in the water and gained an insight to life in the 'Venice of the East'.

After visiting some impressive nearby resorts including a Beach Symphony we arrived at the Marari Beach hotel where we posed for photos in its verdant surroundings at sunset and enjoyed our last taste of Indian cuisine, a butterfly sanctuary and strolls on the thick sandy beach. A fitting ending to a very memorable trip.

Thank you to Neil Sealy and If Only for a enlightening nine days. Now to selling those holidays....

Image shows the fam group - Simon is third from the right

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Costa Rica with Cox and Kings

Sarah Williams of AITO Agent Journeys à la Carte, reports on a recent fam trip to Costa Rica with Cox and Kings

Costa Rica FAM Trip Report

After flying to the capital, San José, I had a brief overnight stay before I was introduced to my guide, Alex Castro, who would be my eyes and ears for the trip. We all know that having a great, knowledgeable guide makes the difference between a good trip and a fantastic trip.

On route through the Central Valley, I visited the Poas Volcano National Park which features two impressive craters - one active and another with a beautiful lake. The crater was very active, with lots of sulphur fumes rising (very pungent!), much to my delight.

Close by is the Doka Coffee Plantation, where you can learn how coffee is grown, picked and harvested, and enjoy lunch here and sample the wonderful produce.

The next two days were spent in the Arenal area which is home to one of the world’s most active volcanoes. The location is perfect for exploring, with 7,200 acres of protected cloud and rain forest.  From here I headed to the Cano Negro wetlands for a boat tour along the Rio Frio, where there is wildlife in abundance.  I was amazed by my guide pointing out crocodile-like caiman, turtles, monkeys, kingfishers and - the best by far - the three-toed sloth.

After a scenic boat crossing over Lake Arenal I was transferred - a fascinating journey - over bumpy, unpaved roads to the biological reserve of Monteverde.  The area is one of the main attractions in Costa Rica, with its cloud forest covering 26,000 acres, and 2,000 species of plants, 400 species of birds and 100 different animal species.  The visit to the cloud forest reserve was the highlight of my trip. I had high hopes of seeing the quetzal, a bird famed for its glorious feathers, and my guide did not let me down. We were only metres away from a nesting pair and, after plenty of clicks from my camera, I realised I could not quite believe that I had seen this beautiful and rare bird so close at hand.

The afternoon was spent in the Selvatura Park, which is the best place to enjoy the cloud forest tree tops across eight suspended bridges. Many species of birds were pointed out and, for those who preferred a bit more action, there was the opportunity to zip-wire over the forest canopy. 

The final leg of my journey was the coastal resort of Manuel Antonio.  Here I spent some time relaxing by the Pacific Ocean. With plenty of wildlife, a national park and a range of good quality hotels, this area is a perfect end to a visit.

Selling tips for Costa Rica:

There’s an abundance of wildlife
The best time to visit is December to April (avoid September/October with heavy rainfall)
Try to avoid going via the USA, as lengthy immigration procedures can result in missing a connecting flight.
There’s something for everyone – families, couples and adventure lovers
It’s very safe, with a low crime rate

Friday, 20 September 2013

AITO Agents expands into Scotland

AITO Specialist Travel Agents is continuing to build its membership base and influence across the UK, with the acceptance of a new Glasgow-based independent agent, Kenneth Macleod Travel, currently the organisation’s only Scotland-based member. 

Kenneth Macleod Travel has been established for over 35 years and specialises in finding the best holiday for every individual requirement. The Kenneth Macleod team has travelled extensively and the agency prides itself on offering a first-class service every time.  

Managing Director of Kenneth Macleod Travel, Elaine Tait, says: “We’ve always understood the importance of offering a professional and personal service, using the experience and expertise of our staff and building relationships with like-minded tour operators. AITO members incorporate all of these attributes and we felt very much that we fitted in well with this prestigious association. In the era of the Internet, it is crucial to remind ourselves that the travel business is all about people and using our first-hand knowledge to offer the best holidays ever.”

Chairman of AITO Agents, Oliver Broad, says: “I’m delighted to welcome a Scotland-based member and I look forward to many more joining the association in the future. Kenneth Macleod Travel has a very similar ethos to AITO and already works with many AITO tour operators, so it made perfect sense for them to join the association.” 

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Exploring Oman with Kirker Holidays

This column recently appeared in Travel Bulletin ( Martin Fisher of Greenstar Travel reflects on a FAM trip to Oman earlier this year...

FAM trips are extremely important to Greenstar Travel – once you’ve been able to soak up a destination you are equipped to sell it effectively. I was lucky enough to be invited to join some fellow AITO Agents on a Kirker Holidays FAM trip to Oman in early June 2013.

I was particularly looking forward to it as Kirker’s FAM trips are always well thought-out and showcase the cultural side of a destination, which is important to many of our clients. If they visit Oman, they generally want to see more than the beaches (which are gorgeous, by the way – overlooked by mountains and the Gulf Sea is warm and very swimmable!).

It was the first time I’d visited Oman and it surpassed my already high-expectations. We flew with Emirates via Dubai and it was a manageable journey of about eight hours in total and only a three hour time difference in Oman from the UK so it’s fairly easy to acclimatise. I was impressed with the A380 because despite it being a huge aircraft, it still manages to be more than comfortable due to the improved seating, in-flight entertainment and the number of Emirates crew. Take-off was smooth and the flight passed quickly.

As expected it was pretty warm at this time of year – but all the hotels, restaurants and transfer vehicles are very comfortable with state-of-the-art air conditioning. Temperatures can rise to over 40° so excursions are better early in the day, and remember that it’s cooler in the breathtaking mountains. There are also some really affordable breaks during this time of year so it can work for some clients. However, for more pleasant warm outdoor temperatures it is best to visit during the winter, spring or autumn and you’ll be almost guaranteed sunny blue skies – Oman typically only experiences a few days of rain every year.

We stayed at the newly renovated Al Bustan Palace Hotel in Muscat, the capital of Oman, and it was such a treat. Our group were surprised at the size of the grand lobby with its high ceilings and glittering chandelier. It has 250 guest rooms overlooking the mountains and 200 acres of private gardens, shoreline and infinity pools - and one of the floors in the hotel is reserved solely for guests of the Sultan! Each evening the menu changes in the restaurant and we can all recommend the mouth-watering Indian buffet dinner that we had courtesy of our hosts, Hisham and Kathryn of Kirker.

Oman is a largely unspoilt landscape, more mountain than desert, with fascinating wadis dissecting the landscape, with underground caves, exotic flora and fauna and miles of coast. It is literally oozing with history, with more than 1,000 castles, forts and watchtowers dotted around the landscape.

We explored the landscape and history via 4x4 jeep tours, with excursions from Muscat including a wander around Nizwa Souq – bursting with authentic spice stalls and other exotic local produce - and visits to the Grand Canyon and Green Mountains. The view of the Green Mountains was particularly breathtaking; the pretty terraced villages growing Mediterranean fruits and nestled amongst the towering mountains. Princess Diana visited in 1986 and there’s a viewpoint there called ‘Diana’s Point’ to mark this. We tucked into delicious local cuisine at the Al Sabah Hotel, which overlooks the mountains and it is a wonderful contrast to combine with a stay in Muscat. 

I enjoyed taking in Muscat too – it was bigger than I had imagined and highly civilised. Highlights included the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque which surely deserves an award for the world’s most beautiful mosque. I didn’t expect to find the visit so moving, with an expert local guide telling us about what it means to be Islamic in Oman. It is big enough to hold over 10,000 people and the attention to detail is out of this world – full of the most intricate work. The carpet covering the floor is the largest in the world. It took 600 female weavers in Iran three years to make it and it had to be transported on three planes and then stitched together on site.

The Bay of Muttrah is a must-see, too, especially early evening when the locals gather there after work, as well as the traditional souk which sells a vast array of jewellery, spices, frankincense, burners and pashminas.

We inspected a selection of other fantastic hotels in Muscat during our visit. The very stylish Chedi, with its new luxury spa and enormous infinity pool; the Shangri-La Baar Al Jissah Resort and Spa, which is particularly family-friendly and the InterContinental, located opposite the Royal Opera House for anyone who has clients interested in the arts – all boasting prime locations by the ocean.

So, I was left in awe of Oman and came away feeling that we had experienced a wonderful and highly authentic corner of Arabia... and couldn’t stop talking about it with my fellow group members once we arrived at the AITO conference in Dubai. In fact, I think we probably got on some other delegates’ nerves as we talked about it a little too much and even called ourselves the ‘Omani 11’! Thank you so much to Kirker Holidays for the fantastic trip – where are we going next?!

Thursday, 8 August 2013

AITO's networking dinners - we'll see you there!

AITO Specialist Travel Agents is set to hold networking dinners for its members this autumn. The events will take place across England and will see AITO Agent and Operator members come together for product updates and news.  

Dates and locations of the networking dinners:

23 September - London, The Halkin by COMO  
24 September – Bristol, Riverstation (pictured)
25 September - York, Barley Hall
30 September – Midlands, Hampton Manor Hotel
1 October – Essex/ Stansted, Legacy Great Hallingbury Manor in Bishops Stortford

If you're interested in attending, call AITO Agents on 020 8744 9271.