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Firebird at AITO Overseas 2023 – the latest insights from the world of independent tour operators

Between 23 and 26 November this year, more than 100 tour operators, travel agents and business leaders came together in the port city of Thessaloniki for the annual AITO Overseas Conference. The Firebird Partnership was proud to be a headline sponsor, with Directors Chris Thompson and Mark Bush representing the team in Greece. Read on for the pair’s main takeaways from this year’s overseas conference.

“The AI coverage engaged and educated in equal measure”


The overall theme running through AITO Overseas 2023 was one of “Shaping the Future,” with two days of sessions giving delegates an enormous amount to think about and discuss.

Our own Mark Bush spoke on a panel considering the potential for AI in the travel sector. He was joined by Matt Illston of RezKit, a Firebird client, in a session expertly introduced by Mark Thompson of Palatinate Group. AI coverage at conferences can often be a bit woolly but this was a session that engaged and educated in equal measure.

(Watch this space for an upcoming blog from Mark on this subject soon…)


Chris joined a panel chaired by industry veteran Richard Carrick, which looked at how to build and then release future value in a travel business – a panel reported on in more depth by Travel Weekly this week.

This kind of topic could easily fill a day, and the feedback from businesses in the room was enormously positive, with lots of further conversations around key areas of focus for evolving businesses – particularly for attendees with one eye on an exit.

“There will be change and disruption; we can embrace this and share the challenges with others”


The core message across both session days was that there will be change; there will be disruption. Our choice now is to embrace this and share in the challenges with others. During the Covid-19 pandemic we witnessed how extraordinarily good AITO was as a trade body at supporting its members, and there is clearly a desire to help them rebuild in the aftermath.

Close to Firebird’s heart was the conference’s message around building value – but to do this tour operators need to know what that means:

  • Know your mission, vision and values

  • Know your numbers

  • Build a great team

  • Underpin it with appropriate tech and processes

“In our online times it’s easy to ask ‘What is a conference for?’”

The elephant in the room was arguably climate change and how to build a genuinely sustainable travel sector. Chris Haslam – Chief Travel Editor of the Times and Sunday Times – did shine a brief spotlight on this issue, but it remains a monumental challenge for the sector over the coming years.

In our online times it's easy to ask “What is a conference for?” In the words of AITO Chair Chris Rowles, it is an opportunity to “Step back from the day to day.” This in itself is of enormous value.

The conference also served as a great reminder that what travellers really want is authentic and engaging experiences – and nobody does this better than the specialist tour operators and travel agents that make up the AITO membership.

“Although there is competition, there is also a huge amount of mutual support”


Overall, this year’s get-together was an excellent opportunity for senior business leaders and business owners in the independent travel sector to connect, spend time with, and learn from one another.

Although there is competition among member companies to some degree, the overwhelming feeling was that there is also a huge amount of mutual support and learning too. The common challenging experience of Covid seems to have strengthened bonds between individuals and companies. Those bonds made for an excellent atmosphere.


Our thanks of course go to AITO, and the tourist boards of Greece and Thessaloniki, for acting as our hosts. The weather may sometimes have felt like a reminder of home – i.e. wet and cold! – but the food and company were superb throughout.

Chris Thompson is a Director of the Firebird Partnership, with almost 20 years’ experience of leading and growing businesses in the travel and tech sectors. His focus is on creating strategy, building teams, and devising processes that are both efficient and value-building.

Mark Bush is a Director of Firebird with over two decades of experience in the travel and leisure sector, in senior IT, MD and CEO positions. He is an expert strategist on eCommerce and Data Diagnostics, offering digital-focused NED support to establish long-term leads for accelerated growth.

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