27th June 2012
Here I am on the beautiful island of Madeira for the annual AITO conference. So why am I here? Well everyone at work thinks I am on a jolly or playing golf, but I would say it’s a mixture of business and networking. I arrived at 09:20am on the ETAP (Portugal’s national airline) flight from Gatwick, which was surprisingly good as it had lots of leg room. From past experience you tend to get on these short haul flights and spend the next few hours or so with your knees in your face. After checking into the hotel a few fellow delegates and I went down to the old town for lunch. The Portuguese certainly know how to look after you as after we sat down a lovely waitress started chatting to us and briefed us on the best fish to eat – I chose the stone sea bass which was the morning catch of the day!
That evening all the delegates were taken to Blandy’s Wine lodge to taste the famous Madeira wine and a tour of the lodge. The lodge was built in the 17th century as the annex to a Franciscan Monastery, the site was acquired in 1840 by Charles Ridpath Blandy and converted into an "Adega" (winery). 12 years later during the phylloxera epidemic (sap-sucking locus fly, feeding on the roots and leaves of the grape vines and destroying the vineyards) he had the foresight to buy up the majority of the stocks of old Madeira wine held on the island turning the building into the heart of the Blandy wine activities. Next we headed off to the famous Funchal Fish Market in the city – where our hosts the Portuguese tourist board arranged a buffet feast right in the middle of the fish market. Fortunately they had cleaned the market, but even though the smell of fish was still quite potent, the dinning location was a great experience.
The next day the conference session started with industry experts and guest speakers presenting on various travel industry issues. Some of the talks were so inspiring, such as digital marketing strategies and mastering online, it certainly gave me a lot to think about and plenty ideas we could use for our business. Then there were a few seminars and open discussions about how to reach out to the overseas market and gain some US and Australian clients. Wild Frontiers already has regular clients out there, but a few more would be nice. Later I spent the afternoon training our key travel agents on the new holiday Wild Frontiers is offering. One of our key travel agents are Robert Broad travel in Lichfield and Staffordshire, so if you are reading this and live in Norfolk pop in and meet Nathan and Oliver and book a holiday with Wild Frontiers.
More food – at this point I was still full from lunch and didn’t feel hungry as we had been so well looked after, though I found myself in another lovely fish restaurant tasting tuna, sea bass and squid! Washed down with a pretty decent bottle of local red wine. Back at the hotel bar I started chatting to a few other friends who run tour operators before I knew it was 2am and time to get some sleep.
Saturday was the last day which opened with a seminar on aviation and new ATOL rules and regulations (ATOL - Air Travel Organiser Licence – which we are a member of). Not the most exciting subject, but very important and I was pleased to have learnt about some new issues which I wasn’t aware of. After a buffet lunch I joined the guided walking tour of the town with a few other delegates. Our local guide took us through the picturesque setting of narrow cobblestone streets lined with old buildings dating back to the 15th century. She also told us a few stories about Madeira, as its location on the Atlantic Ocean is an ideal stopping off port before the long crossing to the Caribbean and South America. Many early discoverers called into Madeira before making the crossing to find new islands including Captain Cook and Christopher Columbus.
After a power nap I donned my finest suite and joined all the other delegates for the bus transfer to the ‘Gala Dinner’ venue for drinks and farewell dinner, in another pleasant location at an old fort on the harbour. I was sat next to Chris from Oasis overland and Susie from Air Charters who arranges private charter planes for a variety of high end clients. All in all it was a great evening and a sound conference. I am planning on heading back next year. Madeira may not be a typical ‘Wild Frontiers’ location, but it certainly delivered on picturesque views, a beautiful coastline with some good trekking following the irrigation channels (Levadas) in the mountains.