Meet the intrepid holiday finder

Meet the intrepid holiday finder

Alistair McLean, Britain’s outstanding provider of adventure holidays, tells Brian Nicholls the story behind his exciting business, which he runs from a converted farmhouse in Northumberland

You do something especially well to capture three top national honours – best small holiday company for family, for activity and sports, and for adults only. So what is it?
We want everybody to benefit from one of our holidays. We have to make a profit to pay overheads and staff, and our suppliers must do the same. But we don’t try to squeeze our suppliers for every single cent, and I believe our clients receive a better and more fulfilling holiday experience because of that. We also have an incredibly dedicated, hard working, creative and intelligent team.

It all seems to work. We’ve received an “overall holiday satisfaction” rating from our clients of over 95% for the past five years. I think this is what contributed so strongly to our gaining three awards recently at the travel industry’s Oscars – The British Travel Awards.

Have you countered the recent cutback in holidaymakers’ foreign travel caused
by recession?
We’ve ridden it out comfortably, recording record profits and record passenger numbers in the financial year to 31 Aug 13. We were the first UK holiday company to recognise the Northern Lights would become big news. By creating The Aurora Zone, a brand maximising chances of seeing the Aurora Borealis, we opened a new market and raised sales through the difficult times.

We now find ourselves cash rich in, hopefully, an economic recovery. We’re looking to spend some of that money on new projects. I’ve just returned from researching Alaska, The Yukon and Vancouver. Exciting times lie ahead!

You tackled the recession by concentrating more on the adult market, but is the family market returning to normal yet?
Clients who have travelled with us over the last few years have been almost exclusively aged between 45 and 75, reasonably affluent and generally looking to tick “wish list” boxes.
The family market has suffered, no denying. I blame the recession and more competition in what was a pretty niche field originally.

However, last summer saw a 28% increase on 2012. This year looks like it will be well ahead again. We’ve a way to go to reach 2008 passenger levels, but the awards have raised our profile and boosted sales.

Travel Awards

What benefits do you find operating from a small place like Stannington?
I can employ local people and as there aren’t a huge amount of jobs in the area, we tend to get considerable staff loyalty. I like to think we treat our employees very well too.

Also, I live in Gosforth and it takes my wife (who also works in the business) and me less than 10 minutes to get home in the evening. We have two children, aged 11 and eight, and believe our family life is equally or more important than the business. The location was chosen with that in mind.

Your business has been running 11 years – did your ideas catch on right away?
The first version in 1999 was a struggle. Through hard graft and sheer bloody mindedness, the business slowly grew to an extent that I obtained an £80,000 loan from the bank to expand.

The money hit our bank account on 10 September 2001 and the very next day was the 9/11 tragedy and nobody wanted to fly for several months after. I was left trying to service the debt on the loan while bookings dwindled. Despite propping it up with a lot of my own cash, I took the business into liquidation in 2002.

This was a low point. I’d lost my business. I was almost made bankrupt. My marriage was suffering. But with the support of my wife and my accountant we raised £40,000 from private investors and started again. Second time around was much easier. I had learned from my mistakes and had more confidence in my decision making. For a few years we were barely paid but had some great adventures setting up holidays in amazing locations. Slowly but surely the passenger numbers grew. So did the returns.

Some ideas, such as The Aurora Zone, catch fire straight away. Others take longer. My cash cow pays for my rising stars and allows them time to grow.

Are about half of your 14 staff graduates of Northumbria University like yourself?
Yup, Northumbria has been a gold mine for us especially the BA (Hons) Travel and Tourism Management degree. Having done this degree myself, I know what’s being taught. It very much suits our needs. We generally take students on a 12 month placement and keep in touch during their final year back at university. I can think of only one placement student who hasn’t come back into full time employment with us.

How much of your working time do you spend travelling and for what purpose?
I initially set up the business so I could travel. I’ve no interest in material goods. Flash cars, fancy suits and ridiculous personalised number plates leave me cold. I simply want to live my one and only existence to the fullest extent possible, and I believe to achieve that I need to see the world.

The plan went on hold for a few years when the children came along. Now they’re 11 and eight, I’m getting back into the travelling side. You’d be amazed how few tour operators send staff to destinations they feature. I believe we have to know places we sell like the backs of our hands. Our company motto is ‘we’ve been, we love, so will you’. Clients booking our holidays can be sure our staff have been to all the destinations we feature. We’ve slept in the beds, eaten the food and loved the activities!

I’ve just returned from an 18 night trip taking in Alaska, The Yukon and Vancouver. I’m fascinated by the Gold Rush, the Northern Lights, distance dog sledding races, the works of Jack London and the vast, vast North generally. Dancing underneath the Aurora Borealis on the Dalton Highway (of Ice Road Truckers fame) at 3am, taking a helicopter ride over the Colony glacier, a boat trip on Prince William Sound and dog sledding with somebody who has competed 10 times in the toughest dog sledding race in the world are just a few highlights I aim to share with our clients over the coming years.

In June, one of my product managers will go out to finalise the trips we’ll create in conjunction with the local suppliers, and in September one of my sales team will also make the trip to ensure we know the destinations and the activities fully. We’re not in the travel business to sit behind desks!

What do you consider are the most exciting holiday(s) your company offers?
So many to choose from! It largely depends on whether it’s a family or adult trip. For families, I think our long haul holidays are amazing – not cheap, but that’s unavoidable given the adventures and accommodation within the holiday. Ecuador and the Galapagos has to be up with the best

Of the winter holidays, any trip that includes hunting for the Northern Lights is amazing, and I love dog sledding. So our five day wilderness safari in Finland, driving your own team and sled ticks all the right boxes for me.

Can you give some idea in figures of how your company has grown?
Last financial year we turned over £6.9m making pre-tax profit of £719k. It keeps the wolf from the door!

What was your job when you decided to jack in and get into business for yourself?
I worked for a stockbroking company in Newcastle for six years and hated it. I dearly wish I’d done something more productive  with that time. One day, aged 30, I packed a tent, a sleeping bag and other bits and pieces on the back of a bicycle and just went off travelling to try and satiate my increasingly restless wanderlust. That’s where it all started.

Had you travelled quite a bit yourself before you set up the business?
I’d cycled across Europe for about 11 months. Other than that it had always been two weeks on some God forsaken Costa lightly grilling under a burning Mediterranean sun. There’s so much more to do now. The holiday industry has changed dramatically.

How old are you?
Ugh! 51, and as my time grows shorter, my list of “must-do’s” grows longer. I tried to deny my 50th by stoically ignoring the landmark, hoping it would go away and bother somebody else.

I eventually relented and invited my close family to lunch which I cooked. When my dad came in the house he shook my hand and said: “Congratulations son, 50 to 70 is the blink of an eye.”

Thanks for that, Dad! As usual, he has been right. The last year has flown. But it has been the best of my life. Long may it continue.

Where were you born?
Corbridge. I’m never happier than when cycling Northumberland’s country lanes.

Your wife’s name, by the way?
Take your pick: Long-suffering. Ever dependable. My rock. Best mother in the world. The most understanding and supportive woman in the world. But mostly, I call her Kate.

How old were you when you became a mature student at Northumbria University?
I was 31 when I went to North Tyneside College to get the qualifications to get into Northumbria. As a mature student I had a huge advantage. I read newspapers and had a rough idea of what was going on in the world and the industry. It’s amazing how many students are clueless on such matters. At 32 I went to Northumbria on a four year course. The other students called me Dad. I allowed them to live, but at times it was close!

Where were you educated before that?
West Jesmond Junior School, Dame Allan’s Boys School, which I left in the fifth year to go to Gosforth High School where you were allowed to associate with girls! School and
I didn’t really get on, truth be told.

What advice have you for anyone venturing abroad?
Listen to the locals. They know, you don’t.Never ever assume you’re in any way superior to the locals and always respect their home environment. Dig deep. Most tourists barely touch the surface in any given destination.

Do you have much competition?
We’ve always been pretty pioneering. We were the second company in the UK to set up multi-activity holidays. We established winter holidays in Scandinavia when they were in
their infancy. And we were first to run dedicated Northern Lights trips.

What are the biggest challenges in your business?
Coming up with new and innovative holidays. We’ve a name for being different and innovative. But there’s such a massive range available it’s hard to remain completely unique.

Your future ambitions for the business?
I’ve a new brand planned which will take up much of the next 12 months as we are investing in new staff, systems, websites and more. We’re going to feature some incredible locations but there’s a lot of work to be done. Eventually, I’ll have to sell my share in the business because it’s my pension and I sincerely hope it’s my staff who buy me out. They would look after it in a way no big corporate would.

The Activity Travel Company operates under three brands.
Activities Abroad – Family activity holidays winter
and summer
The Aurora Zone – Dedicated Northern Lights holidays for people aged 18 and over
The White Circle – Winter adventures such as dog sledding safaris for people aged 18 and over.