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Travel company boss who wants to go with the floe

FOR someone who describes himself as a "spare pair of hands", Bill Munro appears to find plenty of ways to fill his time.

FOCUS: Chairman Bill Munro is aware that the world of travel is changing all the time, and is determined that Barrhead Travel will continue to adapt.  Picture: Colin Templeton
FOCUS: Chairman Bill Munro is aware that the world of travel is changing all the time, and is determined that Barrhead Travel will continue to adapt. Picture: Colin Templeton

Although daughter Sharon runs much of the day-to-day business at Barrhead Travel, Mr Munro, 68, is often found networking, at industry conferences, assessing shop sites, identifying acquisition targets, developing the long-term vision for the company and reading up on technology and trends.

He says one of his networking trips was the starting point to the company recently landing a business travel account worth about £6 million.

Sitting in the boardroom of the company's enormous Oswald Street branch in Glasgow, he said: "I take 10 weeks' holiday [a year] and I am hoping to increase that. I'm not getting any younger and I'm very conscious of that.

"But I'm still in here 10 hours a day some days.

"For all there are ups and downs, the ups are far better than the downs. I still enjoy business but if you are purely in business to make money and line your pockets then you probably won't. It is just to be there, to do something and to put something back."

Like any consumer, Mr Munro has his own personal wish list of destinations, with the chance to jump off ice floes in Antarctica holding steady at number one. He said: "I just haven't got round to justifying the price, which is £8000 to £10,000 a head."

Sailing along the west coast of America in one of his two yachts is another ambition Mr Munro has still to tick off.

In a sector where traditional big players such as Thomas Cook have struggled in recent years, Mr Munro puts the growth of Barrhead – now with more than 40 branches and about 700 staff – down to having good people and being able to put together bespoke products for customers.

He relates a recent booking from a sporting star for a £30,000 holiday, and says large sums like that are not uncommon.

He said: "We tend to specialise in products which can't be easily booked on your computer or mobile device.

"We think people still like to sit down and discuss in detail their holiday requirements.

"It is amazing the number of youngsters that come in a big group and sit round the desk and book a holiday on a Saturday.

"Why they are coming in here rather than booking on the internet I don't know.

"Travel is not rocket science, but there is a heck of a lot to know about it. It is making sure the consultants are well versed and if they come across something they don't know about they can pick up the phone to a specialist department.

"We are no longer a travel agent per se as we actually manufacture holidays to suit the client. We are after repeat and referral business, so we have to give the customer satisfaction."

Although between 60% and 70% of holiday enquiries at Barrhead Travel begin online, the retail and call centre operation still take a great deal of bookings. Underpinning the consumer-facing side of the business is a vast computer system taking in and analysing data on a range of topics.

While Mr Munro admits to not being a big fan of technology, he is quick to acknowledge how important it is to the company.

He said: "I'm not into technology at all but I recognise the worth of it. The technology we have is quite unique. It monitors everything.

"The managers of different departments and the directors can at a moment's notice get live information on who is selling or not selling and what they are selling and what customers are saying about us on Facebook and Twitter.

"We can see why we had a dip last year, then see if there was snow or a big football game on which affected footfall. We can bring all that together on one platform.

"There is a even a traffic light system which warns you if you are a director that there is a problem brewing and you can go to take a closer look at it."

The small management structure and lack of debt has allowed Barrhead to move quickly when opportunities come up – such as the opening of a cruise-related call centre in Cumbria or the £3 million December acquisition of Falkirk online cruise agency The Holiday Specialists.

Mr Munro said: "A lot of what we do is quite spontaneous. We pick up on new trends and look at other people's failures.

"We are fast gathering a lot of people because of the changes at Thomas Cook and TUI Travel."

Mr Munro is adamant that continuing expansion will be self-funded, with Canada and Australia among the countries being considered for new openings. Additions in England including a business travel set-up in London are also on the drawing board.

The company is also looking at additional premises in Glasgow to house its business travel and luxury holiday arm.

Mr Munro expects pre-tax profits for 2012 to be between £300,000 and £400,000 ahead of the £1.9m posted in the previous financial year, and for 2013 he expects turnover to be in the region of £200m.

He said: "Brand names don't last forever. We have been around for a while. We are very conscious if we don't refresh the brand and put in new stuff then the brand will die.

"We also have to recognise that some things don't work any longer, and let them go.

"Social media is in once sense a friend, but it can if you are not careful be a foe.

"It can take years and years to build a brand and hours to destroy it."

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