Byline: FRED MAWER
WHAT single image would you choose to put in a time capsule if you wanted to capture for posterity the essence of a package holiday?
A strong contender would surely be that of a holiday rep, dressed in garish uniform, with clipboard in hand.
Reps have always been synonymous with the traditional package, but maybe not for much longer. This summer two of the UK's largest tour operators are slashing the number in their workforce, and on many holidays are radically altering the service the reps provide.
Thomson will be employing around 1,100 reps this summer, down from 1,400 in previous years. The cutback means that for many holidaymakers going to well-known resorts such as those on the Spanish costas and islands, there will no longer be welcome meetings or regular visits by reps to hotels.
Although you'll still be greeted at the airport and put on the coach, that may well be the only physical contact you'll have with a rep until you're back at the airport heading home.
If you want to book excursions, ask questions about the hotel or resort or get help in an emergency, you'll have to call a 24-hour 'phone rep' service.
If the problem is serious, you may be able to call upon a 'super rep'.
To bolster its pared-down operation, Thomson is employing 100 of these new troubleshooters who, the company promises, will be more experienced and better trained than your average rep.
Another major holiday company, Cosmos, has similar changes in store.
It is cutting around a third of its reps, and in most resorts they won't accompany clients on coaches to their accommodation or lay on welcome meetings, or do hotel rounds. (In place of the reps' introductory spiel, the plan is to play the information on a tape.) Again, holidaymakers will be expected to call a 24-hour helpline if they need to make contact with a rep.
So why are tour operators doing all this? Well, money has a lot to do with it.
With the massive growth in independent holidays, big tour operators have been struggling. They've therefore been looking at taking out elements that used to be included in the cost of packages, such as in-flight meals and even airportto-hotel transfers; reducing rep services is the latest cost-cutting wheeze.
BUT Thomson and Cosmos also argue that the changes to their rep services are a result of listening to their customers.
Hugh Morgan, Cosmos's overseas director, says: 'We couldn't help but notice that the thousands of holidaymakers who were booking through our accommodation-only website were not requiring rep services.
'Resorts have a better infrastructure these days, and many of our clients are well travelled and better read-up about the resort than the reps.'
A Thomson spokeswoman said: 'In many resorts we found from our customer feedback questionnaires that holidaymakers simply didn't need handholding, and there was low attendance at welcome meetings.'
Not all of Thomson's packages will be getting the reduced rep service.
Holidaymakers going to more challenging destinations such as Morocco or Mexico will still get the full service, as will those booking 'lifestyle' holidays from the likes of Thomson's Superfamily and Gold programmes.
Moreover, other major tour operators, including Thomas Cook, First Choice and Airtours, all say they plan to carry on offering the same service they've always provided.