How to set up a holiday company during a global pandemic

Setting up a holiday company at the height of the worst global disease pandemic for a century surely ranks as one of the most eyebrow-raising business stories of the whole Covid saga, but that’s just what Graham Rogers is doing.

Graham Rogers, managing director of Caledonian Travel in Leeds.

At the start of the year, he was managing director of the National Holidays group and was looking forward to a bumper year, but when coronavirus struck the parent company’s US-based backers pulled out, taking the £90m-turnover company into administration.

“From our point of view, that was unforeseen, tragic and unjust,” Mr Rogers told The Yorkshire Post.

Sign up to our Business newsletter

Sign up to our Business newsletter

“We were running a business that was very popular, the largest of its type in the UK, and it should have never gone into administration.”

He added: “We just didn’t see it coming – who could have? Last February, our advance bookings were at their highest level ever and it was going to be a great year for the business and for the whole holidays and experience sector, and then this came along and everything stopped in its tracks.”

As a result, all the group’s businesses were closed down and about 2,500 people around the UK lost their jobs.

“We had over 400 people in the businesses that I was managing, and we felt a bit of a sense of injustice about this because the businesses that we were running were very profitable,” said Mr Rogers.

“We were carrying over 600,000 customers a year, many of them very loyal repeat customers, so we were astonished and so, so disappointed at what happened.”

But the response from many of those customers helped give Mr Rogers and five of his fellow directors the confidence to bounce back. They pooled their personal resources, bought the rights to the Caledonian brand, and set about rebuilding.

They now have a team of 20 of their former employees, all working to relaunch the company from its offices in Leeds. Caledonian Leisure specialises in coach holidays and themed breaks to events including the Chelsea Flower Show, West End productions and national sporting fixtures such as the Grand National and British Grand Prix.

“We can’t set a date on when we start to promote holidays, but what we do want to do is be ready to launch when the time is right,” said Mr Rogers.

“What will determine that will be a) when Government says it is looking likely to be safe to travel, and b) when we feel that customers are saying ‘yes, we think the time is right now’.

“Trying to set up a holidays business in the middle of a global pandemic in many ways sounds a very unusual thing to do. But what we are very keen to do is to make sure that we have overcome these challenges, so that when the time is right, the rocket is ready to launch.

“What we won’t do is jump the gun. It would be irresponsible to do that. We are quite determined that we only want to launch and start promoting travel when it is absolutely safe.”

But even though the management team is trying to recreate what they used to have, they are under no illusion that everything will be the same in the new post-Covid world.

On a practical level, health and safety measures will need to feature heavily, and the company is working to ensure that all such eventualities are covered and planned for.

But Mr Rogers said there is another issue that will be more important than ever.

“Consumer protection – in terms of both health and finance – will be absolutely number one,” he said.

“The holiday industry has come under such enormous flak through this period, and even the bigger names have taken a real hammering over the way they have handled consumer refunds. That’s because historically the holiday industry worked on the basis of using customers’ money effectively to fund the working of the business.

“In the new world, that will be totally unacceptable. We are expecting that the Government will legislate against that kind of behaviour, but for our own part, we have now put into place completely independent trust protection for consumers’ money.

“That means that should there be another interruption in the holiday sector, clients will be able to easily and quickly access their monies. That’s the biggest sea-change that’s going to affect the industry, and we’re prepared and ready for that.”

Once the Covid crisis has abated enough to allow for safe travel, Mr Rogers believes the company stands to benefit from the British public’s rediscovery of its own back yard.

“This has been a wake-up call that has made a lot of people realise they don’t have to jump on a plane to enjoy a great holiday,” he said.

“You could spend a lifetime exploring the UK and still not see all that it has to offer. Experience breaks have grown enormously. More people are going to Christmas markets and live music, for example – or certainly were, up to the point of Covid.

“Of course, people will always search out international destinations, and that’s perfectly understandable – I’m sure we’ll all engage in that as well – but equally I’m sure that having been confined, we can’t wait to go out and explore and the UK sector will continue to grow once we can all get back to it.

“We are absolutely convinced that staycations are here to stay. For the domestic tourism industry, Covid has created a pathway to a whole new era.”

If he’s right, the new venture could become very profitable – not to say lucrative for the six directors behind the relaunch. But he says it’s not about the money.

“Of course, we want the business to grow and be successful, but I think we’re probably slightly unusual in that success to us looks like happy customers. I can’t think that we’re a team of people where it’s all about making money – that’s never been the driver for us.

“Any business that puts its customers absolutely first will normally succeed. If you fail to put your customers first then you shouldn’t be in business.

“This is not about saying we want to be the biggest. If that happens, that would be wonderful, but we want to be, let’s say, the best. That’s our motivation, and it always has been.”