//Interview: James Howlett, Head of sales at Collette

Interview: James Howlett, Head of sales at Collette

Sam Ballard hears the tour operator’s plans for relaunching in the UK with trade support

In 2018, Collette, the 100-year-old American tour operator, which had had a foothold in the UK for years, lost the Thomas Cook contract and subsequently pulled out of the UK. The move surprised many. In the US, Collette is one of the biggest names in group touring and many thought that it was an easy sell to UK consumers. 

The company has now appointed Fred Olsen Travel to be its UK general sales agent (GSA). Fred, in turn, has appointed James Howlett to lead the sales operation. Howlett, who joined Fred Olsen from luxury river operator Uniworld, previously worked at Collette. We sat down together to hear his plans for relaunching Collette in the UK and what he’s got in store
for getting the trade on side.

Sunrise at the base of the Arenal Volcano in Costa Rica

What’s the plan to take Collette forward?

We’re a small team – it’s me, Bryony, Kirsty and Lawrence Peachey, who has worked at Fred Travel for seven years. He’ll go and visit every single agent in the UK and get the word out there. The great thing is that he will see a lot of travel agents, the downside is that if he sees a travel agent tomorrow, he might not see them for a year. With the Collette business, we are growing it from scratch, but we will also grow the Fred Holiday business as well. That’s where we’ve been selecting key partners and those we want to support – and building in plans with them.

The biggest USP we have is our tour managers. They are very experienced in their areas – they are experts

James Howlett

What is unique about Collette?

The biggest USP we have is our tour managers. They are very experienced in their areas – they are experts. A lot of companies have great tour guides but some of ours have been with the business for 30 or 40 years. Then there’s the longevity of our business –  we’re 100 years old. 

What areas do you specialise in?

For me, it’s North America. Collette is a North American business – the guy who started it was called Jack Collette, who used to take a 12-seater bus down the east coast of America from Boston to Florida. It’s still a big focus for us: the Canadian Rockies, National Parks of America, New England – then going into Central America, Costa Rica is the most popular tour we’ve got by far.

How luxurious is Collette?

It’s comfortably four or five-star. I was once told that our hotels aren’t centrally located, they’re strategically located. If you’re going to Lake Louise, which isn’t near anything, you want to stay in the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, whereas if you’re going to Costa Rica, you don’t want to be staying in San José, you want to be in the national parks. So it depends on the tour – we’ll always do what’s best.

Which demographic is most suited to your tours?

It’s very similar to river cruising. You have the same demographic – it’s those people who like visiting villages and towns. It’s the 60-plus market and probably retired. They’re culturally interested but perhaps don’t have the confidence to do it themselves. 

What is the message for the UK trade?

We’re rebuilding. A lot of the conversations I’m having are with people saying that they didn’t know they could even book Collette. It’s also getting trade confidence back through Fred Travel. It’s very similar to Star Clippers, for which Fred Travel is also the GSA. People know Star Clippers and they know Fred Travel, but they don’t necessarily associate the two. That’s the situation we want to be in with Collette. It’s all about getting that confidence back with the trade and working with them closer than Collette ever has before.

Will you be doing events or fam trips?

When I was at Collette previously we never did a UK fam trip – we’re planning on doing four in 2020. We’re going to do more fam trips, more events. We’ll be taking some of the things that were really successful with Uniworld, like taking agents to Paris for the day and having dinner on board the river ship we charter, which belongs to Amadeus River Cruises. We’ve also got concessions for agents now. If agents want to do their own trip they will get 50 per cent off the Collette tour and 30 per cent off for their partner.

Where should agents go if they want to know more? 

We’ve got a travel agent portal where agents can register. In doing so, they’ll  gain access to digital brochures and point of sale materials – and they can reach out to the team, too. If they’ve got consumer events, or if they want to do joint marketing, or if they have a database they want contacting, we can support them with all of that. That support wasn’t necessarily there before. We’ve now got the tools and we can work with agents a lot more.

Sam Ballard is a director and co-founder of Waterfront Publishing, creator of ABTA Magazine, Cruise Adviser, Solus and more.