IT is hard to imagine how Neil Lapping, owner of Glasgow-based tour company Macs Adventure, must have felt when the reality of the coronavirus dawned in March.

The travel entrepreneur had steadily built up the company since its formation in a Scotstoun flat in 2002.

But he could only watch in horror as nearly a year’s worth of bookings disappear when travel restrictions were imposed to halt the spread of the virus.

Around 90 per cent of the firm’s 68 staff were put on furlough as Mr Lapping figured out how to keep a business hinged on the ability of people to travel was going to survive. Its workforce has since reduced to 50 following a combination of resignations, redundancies and temporary contracts coming to an end, with 21 of that number on furlough. Mr Lapping ultimately expects to have a 33 after the furlough scheme ends in October.

“It was absolutely devastating,” recalled Mr Lapping, who said the firm had been on track to turn over £30 million this year, up from less than £3m in 2012. “I do not do this for money. I do this because I love building a team and connecting customers with fantastic experiences and suppliers, working with an amazing network of hoteliers, taxi transfers and providers.

“If you look at what it means for all those people, it is devastating.”

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Things are beginning to look up, though. While the company will emerge from the crisis with a smaller team (talks are continuing with staff), a £1 million loan from Barclays secured in May provided much-needed breathing space.

At the time we spoke, Mr Lapping reported that its subsidiary business in Germany had secured more bookings in June than it had in the same month of 2019, and he was optimistic after the Scottish Government gave the nod for the tourism industry to reopen in Scotland. “There is no doubt we are really well placed to serve that demand,” he said.

“There is huge demand from UK holidaymakers to holiday within the UK. So, from thinking we were going to have a zero-revenue year in 2020, it is looking like we might have some business by the end of the year, which is much more positive than it was.”

Macs offers bespoke walking and cycling tours in destinations all over and world, but in its early days it was focused on the Scottish market. In that respect, the rise in staycations offers a chance for Mr Lapping to go back to his roots, albeit the domestic market had always been a cornerstone of the business. It works closely with a network of small suppliers such as B&Bs and taxi companies, which link in with the tours Macs lays on.

“It is very much how our business started,” Mr Lapping said. “West Highland Way was the first ever trip we operated. We have been operating that now for 17 years. I think we have got well over 800 trip reviews, so we have got a long-established reputation. Between 40% and 50 per cent of our revenue is always from trips in the UK.

“There have always been a lot of customers coming in from the United States and Germany, but we have never gone away from having a very solid UK client base.”

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In fact, Mr Lapping notes that May and September are often its busiest months because trips with Macs tend to be a “second holiday” for domestic travellers.

“So, we’re really quite well placed, and quite excited,” he said.

And the number of enquiries coming in are rising again, though Mr Lapping said people are taking a bit longer to make decisions. “People are still quite cautious,” he noted. “People are very much in the planning stage at the moment, they are still quite nervous. But I think in the next couple of weeks we will really start to see that accelerate.”

Travel would very much seem to be a lifestyle as well as a business for Mr Lapping, who has climbed Ben Nevis more than 130 times during his years leading walking parties.

Describing himself as a “complete itinerant” in his early adult life, he studied in business at university Cape Town, South Africa, before heading to London after graduating. “I always joked that I could not get a job,” he quipped.

He lasted just three months in the UK capital before he packed his backs again, this time to work for a UK tour company, teaching water sports and sailing in the Mediterranean.

It was after this five-year spell that he “ending up a Scottish girl and coming up to Scotland.”

“I just fell in love with how spectacular it was and beautiful,” Mr Lapping said. “It was actually the far north-west, in Ullapool. Then we went travelling for another year in Australia and New Zealand and I was just amazed by the tourist industry there, and how it is very much based on people doing things and getting involved.”

He decided to bring that experience-led tourism to Scotland after his return, having realised that so many tourists were seeing the country “through the window of a bus”.

While the last few months have been bruising, Mr Lapping’s faith in the travel business has not been shaken. In fact, it has only been strengthened. He even says the crisis has brought a welcome chance for reflection.

“It is certainly not the way I have chosen to do it (evaluate the business), but it certainly has been some powerful medicine,” Mr Lapping said. “It has just forced you to focus on what is really important as an entrepreneur, and what is really for the team and for the business.”

He added: “You just have to roll your sleeves up, and learn the hard lessons. That is the thing I loved most about being an entrepreneur – I feel I never stop learning. Every single day I am being challenged by circumstances, people, situations. I think it is that growth and learning which makes starting and growing a business the most rewarding career that anyone could hope for.”

Six Questions

What countries have you most enjoyed travelling to, for business or leisure, and why?
I love Switzerland and particularly the Swiss Alps for leisure as the whole mountain experience, summer or winter, is out of this world. For business, spending time in America always energises me as entrepreneurship is so highly regarded and supported at every level. 
When you were a child, what was your ideal job? Why did it appeal? 
I don’t think I knew what I wanted to do. I was too focused on having fun. I think we put too much pressure on children too early to have their career all planned out. We should let them be kids. 
What was your biggest break in business? 
In the very early days we were recommended for a big contract with a German company by a tour operator who was retiring. At the time it made up 50 per cent 
of our revenue and without it I don’t 
think we would have survived. 
What was your worst moment in business? 
This year’s Covid-19 crisis is right up there, but the last six months have taught me as much as the previous 16 years. 

Who do you most admire and why? 
Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia. There is no better example of a 
values-driven entrepreneur, who 
has proved a business can make a positive impact on the planet.

What book are you reading and what music are you listening to? 
My Life As An Explorer: A Memoir by Roald Amundsen for pleasure and Start With Why by Simon Sinek for work. I’m listening to whatever is on my Spotify playlist, – sometimes influenced by my 10-year-old daughter.