By Kristy Dorsey

As a founding director in charge of the historic Caledonian Travel coach holiday business, Graham Rogers never imagined a situation that could topple a “very profitable” businesses into collapse in a span of just a few short months.

That, of course, was before the Covid-19 pandemic that swept aside pretty much all that lay before it. After more than 30 years of trading in Scotland, it appeared that Caledonian was at the end of the road.

Operating as part of a division that also included National Holidays and, Caledonian Travel and its sister companies were part of Wigan-based Specialist Leisure Group (SLG), whose other assets included the Shearings coach holiday brand and a string of hotels across Scotland and other parts of the UK.

When the pandemic hit, SLG’s owner, US private equity firm Lone Star Funds, went on a scramble to find a buyer. When those efforts failed, SLG was plunged into administration in May with the loss of about 2,500 jobs.

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Along with fellow directors Martin Lock and Carl Brackenbury, Mr Rogers stepped in to save their part of the operation, which had 400 employees and an annual turnover of £90 million from carrying some 600,000 customers a year. Though they failed to secure National Holidays, the Scots tour operator and were acquired in July to form what is now known as Caledonian Leisure.

“This was an otherwise sound, profitable business being put into administration, and we felt that shouldn’t have happened,” Mr Rogers said. “We were very keen to see a re-emergence of the business.

“The overwhelming sentiment from our customers was to say please bring the business back, please keep doing what you were doing.”

The management team have so far invested their personal resources in the revival of Caledonian, but are in the process of securing external financing as they seek to rebuild the operation that previously owned and operated its own fleet of 120 luxury coaches. They have also lined up an expanded schedule of destinations and events, along with plans for the addition of new departure points throughout the north of England.

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But despite pent-up demand from customers who have largely been cooped up at home, Mr Rogers said Caledonian Leisure will not jump the gun in attempting to get back on the road.

“We are aware that a number of holiday companies are still promoting in the UK, but with the pandemic at the stage we are at, with a second wave of infections, we do not believe that promoting is the responsible thing to do at the moment,” he said.

“We will re-launch when the time is right, and it is safe to do so.”

Asked when that might be, Mr Rogers said the company is provisionally looking to begin marketing at the end of this year, with holidays to get underway in the spring of 2021. In the meantime, Caledonian Leisure is going through all the necessary checks to ensure that its event and accommodation providers have Covid-safe procedures in place, and is developing its own measures for safe coach travel.

“There needs to be a manageable level of risk, and clearly now is not that time, but when it is it will be worth the wait,” he added.

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Another innovation the company is working on is an alternative to the long-standing industry practice of bonding, which effectively allows travel operators to use money paid by customers for future holidays to fund current operations. Although such deposits can often be reclaimed if there are cancellations, Mr Rogers describes the process as “arduous”.

Rather, Caledonian Leisure will hold deposits separately in trust, where the money will remain until the holiday is delivered. Mr Rogers said this will pave the way to efficient refunds or re-bookings when local lockdowns force a cancellation, or when customers are prevented from departing because of self-isolation restrictions.

He believes this will have to become the standard for the broader industry, as safety and consumer protection are now paramount: “Going forward it will be essential that customers’ holiday money is protected, and is not exploited.”

The company has to date been able to bring back 30 of its former employees at offices in Leeds and Glasgow, with six of 20 former staff now employed in the latter. More are expected to come on board as the company acquires coaches and gets closer to launching its programme of coach tours or, in the case of, self-driving holidays.

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Despite the hardships and difficulties caused by the pandemic, Mr Rogers said all evidence indicates there will be huge demand for staycations as the world unwinds from the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“There is enormous pent-up demand,” he said. “People are desperate to get out, they are desperate to live a normal life as they did before March.”

Although the stereotype of coach holidays largely remains one of older people on sightseeing tours, Mr Rogers said there has been a shift in recent years as a younger audience has been lured in by a programme of city breaks, music festivals and amusement centres such as Alton Towers. Sporting breaks to rugby, football and similar contests, together with family-oriented trips to the likes of Cadbury World or Flamingo Land, will also feature alongside traditional landmark events such as the Chelsea Flower Show.

Having worked in the industry all his life, Mr Rogers is keen to get Caledonian Leisure back on the road as soon as it’s safe to do so.

“I am passionate about travel – it is what I have always wanted to do,” he said.

“You spend your life creating happiness for people. What could be better?”


What countries have you most enjoyed travelling to, for business or leisure, and why?

Barbados, for its beautiful beaches and laid-back style, New York for its unending excitement and, of course, Scotland for its incredible scenery, unique history and hidden gems.

When you were a child, what was your ideal job? Why did it appeal?

I wanted to be a footballer – Billy Bremner was my childhood hero! But as soon as I realised I had two left feet it quickly changed to anything in travel.

From the outset I loved the idea of being involved in holidays, starting out by driving holiday coaches and getting a first-hand experience of what makes a great holiday experience. I have been so lucky to have a career doing something I enjoy so much.

What was your biggest break in business?

Everything! From organising my very first holiday, founding National Holidays, joining the Board at Wallace Arnold and having the opportunity to provide great breaks and holidays with Caledonian Travel. Engaging with customers and becoming part of their lifestyle is a humbling and gratifying experience.

Although a bit different to the holidays business, locally I also had the opportunity to help manage the transport for the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow which was a fantastic time for everybody concerned.

What was your worst moment in business?

Seeing Specialist Leisure Group close down as a result of Covid. So many amazing colleagues lost their jobs.

Who do you most admire and why?

Probably Sir David Attenborough. His longevity and unfailing commitment to conservation and sharing the wonders of the natural world are a true inspiration. It’s great to see such passion about such an important subject.

What book are you reading and what music are you listening to?

Favourite books would be The Blind Man of Seville by Robert Wilson or A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson, however I’ve just finished reading The Salt Path by Raynor Winn, mostly to learn more about the South-West Coast Path.

Music taste covers just about anything – from The Beatles or Rolling Stones all the way through to Ava Max or Biffy Clyro! Music provides the soundtrack to our lives, and I’m rarely without something playing on the radio, my phone or laptop. Like many people, I can’t wait to get back to enjoying live music when things return to normal.