Sun, sea and sex - but no sangria

Tour operators are having to tread carefully to avoid charges that they encourage binge-drinking, writes Robert Gray

It's the height of the holiday season, and more than 1m youngsters from the UK have descended on Europe's resorts for fun in the sun.

They are under close scrutiny. Last summer, such frolics were perceived as crossing the line into anti-social behaviour. Faliraki, a resort on the Greek island of Rhodes, gained particular notoriety following stories of drunken violence, public nudity, sexual assaults and the fatal stabbing of 17-year-old Paddy Doran from Peterborough in one of its nightclubs. Opinion research commissioned earlier this year by alcohol industry watchdog The Portman Group found that 62% of Britons had been embarrassed by the overseas antics of their fellow nationals.

It emerged recently that The Portman Group had linked up with Thomas Cook-owned holiday brand Club 18-30 to distribute a safe drinking guide to young British holidaymakers (Marketing, 28 July). The Lethal Summer Cocktails booklet is designed like a cocktail mixing guide, but is intended to address the problem of binge-drinking in Mediterranean resorts.

It is the result of growing pressure on tour operators - particularly those specialising in youth holidays - to do more to discourage alcohol abuse and reduce intimidating yobbishness. But is it really their responsibility?

'Some people seem to perceive that we will act like a parent,' observes Andy Cooper, director-general of the Association of Tour Operators. 'That's not our role.'

Taking the right line

Jim Minton, The Portman Group's director of campaigns and communications, understands why tour operators aren't falling over themselves to promote angelic behaviour. 'It's a fine line for them,' he says. 'They don't want to say to their customers "Come away with us and you'll be told what to do all the time." They don't want people to think they will be lectured.'

Minton does feel, however, that the operators need to think long and hard about the promotions and activities they undertake for their customers.

Many of the problems in the past have occurred on organised pub crawls.

Marc Jones, Club 18-30's regional manager for UK promotions, insists his company is moving away from such activities. 'We recognised that bar crawls and tacky games were old hat,' he explains. 'Our clients are more sophisticated. They are into music and film.'

Operators are more likely to act because media scandals about anti-social behaviour actually hit their bookings. TUI UK's youth brand Club Freestyle and First Choice's 2wentys both pulled out of Faliraki this year.

Club 18-30, which has organised holidays in the resort for the past 25 years, admits that its bookings there this year are 60% down on 2003.

This is in stark contrast to its packages to destinations such as Malia in Crete and Laganas in Zante, which have gained strongly in popularity.

Marie Wilson, product group manager for sun brands at First Choice, believes it is important for tour operators to highlight responsible drinking practices to their youth market, but argues it is essential to set the correct tone.

In her view, what 2wentys is doing with its Little Book of Sure Things, circulated to all its passengers with their tickets before departure, is likely to be more effective than The Portman Group's initiative.

'We've adopted a straightforward approach in our safety communications and feel that the gimmicky and humorous approach, as adopted by The Portman Group, can be seen to make light of the issues,' she says. 'It acts to dilute the very important message.'

Rep support

Wilson adds that communicating through leaflets works best when it is backed up by face-to-face contact with a representative in the resort.

This is the approach adopted by TUI UK. Product development manager Claire Saxel says reps receive training on alcohol consumption issues and insists there is a policy to avoid drinking games on excursions and in resorts.

'We take care to ensure that we do not promote excessive drinking or feature alcohol in our marketing campaigns,' she says. 'We believe that as a respectable tour operator, aware of the temptations open to our target market, promoting moderation when drinking is the responsible thing to do.'

Not everyone is convinced that the tour operators are behaving responsibly enough. Alcohol Concern believes that some of the marketing material produced by the tour operators targeting the 18-30 market is not conducive to fostering responsible behaviour. In particular, a lot of the material is sexually suggestive in nature.

None of today's ads, however, is as provocative as Club 18-30's infamous 1995 poster campaign featuring the immortal strapline 'Beaver Espana' and the plainly irresponsible headline 'You get two weeks for being drunk and disorderly'. The Advertising Standards Authority received 490 complaints about the campaign.

The tour operator would not dream of attempting such a blatant strategy today. But it is interesting to note that as well as co-operating with the NHS safe-sex initiative 'The sex lottery', Club 18-30 has also partnered with drinks brand WKD, with which it is working on promotions featuring holiday prizes.

'We are not moral guardians. We are not their parents,' insists Jones. 'They are young adults'.

DATA FILE - TOUR OPERATORS

- About 250,000 people a year go on holidays provided by specialist companies targeting the 18-30 market, according to the Federation of Tour Operators. A further 1m 18- to 30-year-olds go on packages offered by mainstream tour operators.

- Club 18-30 is the market-leading youth specialist, with roughly 100,000 customers a year. Escapades (part of MyTravel), 2wentys (First Choice) and Club Freestyle (TUI UK) are the other major players.

- This year's hot destinations for young sun-seekers are Laganas in Zante, Kardamena in Kos, Kavos in Corfu and Malia in Crete.

- The resorts of San Antonio in Ibiza and Ayia Napa in Cyprus remain firm favourites among keen clubbers.

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