Is the humble package holiday hip again?
With concept resorts, millennial cruises and Ryanair bundles, package holidays are being reinvented for the age of Instagram, says Pól Ó Conghaile
Remember the first package holiday you took?
If you're of a certain age, you bought it from a bricks-and-mortar travel agent. You chose from brochures chocca with cheesy names: Santa Ponsa, Benidorm or the Costa del Sol. You marvelled at piña coladas, sent postcards of sights rather than Instagrams of your feet, and called home with a phone card.
Today, it's another world. Holidays are dominated by the digital, by budget airlines and booking engines, by nifty apps and Airbnb. DIY breaks are just a couple of clicks away (this year, even Michael O'Leary got in on the act with a package holiday play, Ryanair Holidays). The old guard has had to get creative to compete.
"It's a totally different landscape to what we were used to," says Pat Dawson, who runs Cork's Dawson Travel and is president of the Irish Association of Travel Agents (ITAA).
"In the 1960s, the leading light was the JWT set. They were by a mile the biggest tour operator, and they went to places like Sitges and Benidorm. Then, of course, you had Budget Travel, with its cheap and cheerful holidays."
Dawson offers one figure to illustrate the change. "In 2016, we had 1.3 million charter seats. In 2018, we'll have about 175,000."
So how are travel businesses tacking with the trends? Some, like ClickAndGo.com and GoHop.ie, have seen industry experts move towards 'dynamic' packages that allow customers match hotel nights with scheduled flights rather than charters. That offers lower costs, handy online booking and flexible dates, rather than the traditional seven or 14 nights.
Others are dreaming it up all over again.
This month, 84-year-old Air France launched 'Joon', an airline aimed at millennials. Now 41-year-old Uniworld is set to breathe life into the fusty world of river cruising when it launches a pair of inky-black ships (above) targeting 21 to 45-year-olds in 2018. It's banking on rooftop lounges, yoga studios, mixology classes and bar hops around Paris, Budapest and Prague luring a younger market, while retaining the all-inclusive value of a package.
TUI, the new name for Falcon and Thomson, has also been adapting to the way 21st-century travellers live. It thinks in terms of holiday "concepts" - ranging from Splashworld resorts with their own waterparks, to 'Family Life' products with kids' clubs, cafés and toned-back gathering spaces, or adult-only 'Sensimar' resorts.
"It's no longer just one-size-fits-all," says Charlotte Brenner, TUI Ireland's marketing manager. "A lot of our holidays are designed around the specific needs of customers, around the modern lifestyle... we also now offer flexibility of flying with a mix of charter and partner airlines. It's not just seven or 14-night holidays."
Who uses travel agents these days? In the main, it tends to be families and the over-50s (they account for two thirds of Irish travel agents' business, according to a recent survey by the ITAA). While younger couples and singles gravitate towards independent booking, however, it's also true that they value expertise and human reassurance when it comes to more complex itineraries, long-haul trips and honeymoons.
"If it's a simple trip to Malaga or Madrid, then yes, most younger people will book online," Pat Dawson says. "But for anywhere complicated, or with a financial spend or risk like long-haul, lots of them will go back to the bricks and mortar behind the website. They want the truth about the resort, the first-hand information."
Indeed, given that most small travel agents can't afford to compete online, many have chosen to focus on families, older travellers and niche trips. These range from sun, cruise and long-haul holidays to more experiential escapes like, say, Northern Lights expeditions in Iceland, walking holidays on the Camino, or once-in-a-lifetime visits to Disneyland Paris.
Some, like Travel Department and TD Active, have built entire brands out of escorted and active trips, playing to a growing trend for immersive, culturally enriching travel - whatever the age group.
The trouble is, of course, that younger travellers aren't always aware of this expertise, or this way of booking travel. Digital natives don't necessarily realise the benefits a package can bring.
"Lots of young people booking cheap holidays online are completely unaware of what packages include," says Marie Claire Porter of Sunway, which is over 50 years in business and has just launched a "state-of-the-art" new online reservations system. "Think of the 20kg bag or airport transfers, which can add up hugely on a trip you book yourself."
Plus, you get the security of a rep service and a company that's licensed and bonded.
Is there a way to get the best of both worlds? In one trend tipped for 2018, it's thought that would-be tourists will seek to revisit the scenes of childhood holidays, taking their families for a sense of nostalgia, tradition and irony-free bonding - even if it is without phone cards and exotic piña coladas.
"Blending the future with the past, next year's travellers will be inspired to return to previously loved destinations and explore them in a whole new way," says a trends report from Booking.com. It predicts that one third of travellers (34pc) will consider a holiday they experienced as a child for 2018.
Sunway sees many families returning to the same destinations year after year, Porter says. "They do continue this tradition... we would often have multigenerational families travelling as groups and recreating memories that would now involve the younger generation."
If you do head back to Benidorm or Santa Ponsa, however, don't expect them to be the same places you hit up in your pomp.
"I was looking at Gran Canaria for my own family recently, and I couldn't believe the choice," says Charlotte Brenner. "It's no longer Playa del Ingles and Puerto Rico. It's absolutely incredible the investment that has gone in."
Majorca was Falcon's No 1 destination decades ago, and it remains No 1 for TUI today, she says.
"But it's not the same Majorca as 20 or 30 years ago. It's constantly reinvesting."
It's also true that new generations may not realise, or care about, the naff baggage that can come with a retro resort.
Magaluf, for example, is in the middle of a five-year campaign to upgrade from its seedy, 'Shagaluf' reputation, and now bans the sale of alcohol for consumption on the streets. Visitors to Salou and the Costa Dorada can now find Ryanair flights to Reus, Barcelona just a short train ride away, and a PortAventura that has just opened Ferrari Land, with the fastest rollercoaster in Europe.
At the end of the day, we Irish aren't as intrepid as we think. The vast majority of sun-seekers go to the same place they have always gone: Spain. So maybe it's time to give the package, that un-hippest of holidays, another look.
"It's not the package of 20 or 30 years ago," Brenner says.
"It has evolved way beyond that. It's a modern holiday now."