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City breaks and ski holidays business can cope in a crisis

IN THIS week's SME Focus we hear from a travel trade entrepreneur who has had to deal with challenges ranging from market-changing technological developments and the disruption caused to holiday-makers by a giant ash cloud.

whole PACKAGE: Michael Bennett's firm Osprey Holidays does everything from booking hotels to organising activities for clients. Picture: Stewart Attwood
whole PACKAGE: Michael Bennett's firm Osprey Holidays does everything from booking hotels to organising activities for clients. Picture: Stewart Attwood

Name: Michael Bennett.

Age: 44.

What is your business called? Osprey Holidays Ltd.

Where is it based? Edinburgh.

What does it produce?

Osprey Holidays Ltd is an independent family-run tour operator providing tailor-made short breaks to 55 cities across Europe. We design bespoke holidays for our clients, including itineraries based on local knowledge of the region. We then make all the arrangements on behalf of our clients, from picking and booking hotels to arranging flights, transfers and activities. We also offer ski holidays to Europe and North America through our Ski Independence and Powderbeds.com brands based on the same model.

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Who does it sell to?

Osprey Holidays sell direct to the public and via travel agents throughout Scotland and England. People often assume our Edinburgh office location means we serve only the Scottish market. In fact about 50 per cent of our business comes from England, with a high concentration of this from the south-east.

What is your turnover? More than £10 million per annum and growing.

How many employees do you have? 38.

When was it formed?

1973. Last year was Osprey Holidays' 40th birthday.

Why did you take the plunge?

Osprey Holidays is a family-run business that grew from a chain of Scottish travel agencies called Bennett's Travel, which was started by my grandfather back in the 1950s after he left the RAF. When my grandfather retired in the 1970s, my father took over the business. I'd been working in the property sector for 10 years before my father asked me to join the company in 2002. It felt like the perfect time to make the move. I'd been brought up with my grandfather, father and uncle running the family travel business so joining the company was the most natural thing in the world for me - this is a business that definitely runs in the blood. Looking back, it was the best thing I've ever done and I'm delighted I've been able to continue on for another generation.

What were you doing before?

I worked for Rettie & Co in Edinburgh selling period houses and flats on behalf of clients. The property business taught me a lot about managing people's expectations and the travel business is no different. You can't underestimate how important it is for people choosing and booking the right holiday. All my travel experience has come from working in the family business. My father insisted I work my way up from the bottom, from working in the reservations team, managing the marketing department, to finally becoming managing director in 2008. The best way to really understand how a business works is to do the job yourself. Then you can talk from a position of authority and experience.

How did you raise the start-up funding?

We haven't had to use any external funding for our business - our strategy has been steady, organic growth.

What was your biggest break? There aren't many breaks in the travel business. You need a good strategy, great people and lots of hard work. We sell a significant proportion of our holidays to clients through travel agents and maintaining and building our relationships with our agents has been vital to our success, particularly in recent years. It is also worth pointing out that the growth of the internet and its use as a booking and search tool for holiday-makers has also had a massive positive impact on our business, and our customers. Having access to 24-hour travel and destination information via the web has made it easier for our clients to research their next holiday, while providing a touching point with our company, our personality and values. The internet has also meant clients have more choice and are better informed when it comes to choosing their holiday, as well as making the world seem a more accessible place. There were predictions the internet would mean the demise of the customer facing tour operator and travel agent model but this simply hasn't happened. If anything, we're now seeing a bounce back to this traditional model with clients seeking first-hand recommendations and advice. The travel business is first and foremost a people business.

What was your worst moment? The 2010 ash cloud triggered by a volcanic eruption in Iceland caused enormous disruption and Osprey Holidays became a 24/7 operation for a week as we assisted clients stuck in North America and Europe. I've never seen anything like it since joining the business and hope never to see it again. I was in Calgary with the ski management team when the ash cloud hit and we were stuck there for six days. The only good thing is we were in the same time zone as many of our clients, so we set up shop and acted as a 24-hour communication point in Canada. It was impossible to say when the skies would open again but our clients were all very understanding. That certainly made a difficult situation much easier. Let's hope it will be another 100 years before the Eyjafjallajokull Volcano decides to erupt again!

What do you enjoy most about running the business?

Every day is different and the changing nature of travel and the way people book holidays means standing still is never an option. The digital side of the business is something I really enjoy, although it's been a steep learning curve over the past five years, having launched three new websites in that time.

Thankfully, gone are the days when a holiday brochure is the key to a good or bad year. However, the right digital strategy for today will look archaic in a few years.

What do you least enjoy?

Being on the first red-eye from Edinburgh to London!

What are your ambitions for the business?

To be the UK market leader in city break and ski holidays. To grow our business and margins but never lose sight of our core strengths and values.

What are your top priorities?

I'd like to grow turnover and of course profitability and ensure that we retain the team we have working for us. I'd also like to continue to innovate and react to market changes in both the online and offline spaces. Ultimately, we stand and fall on our reputation and the trust that our clients and agents have in our service and products so this has to remain at the heart of what we do.

What could the Westminster and /or Scottish Governments do that would help most?

I tend to stay out of macro-economic discussions and I'm not sure there's very much I'd change with the current system. Any business would benefit from things like lower corporation tax and lower National Insurance contributions but it all has to be funded from somewhere else.

What is the most important lesson you have learned?

The more you put in the more you get out.

How do you relax?

I take city breaks and go skiing obviously! And when I'm not doing that I go salmon fishing, enjoy rugby and coach mini-rugby, play five-a-side football and cricket.

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