The fallout of Specialist Leisure Group going into administration

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Specialist Leisure Group (SLG) entered into administration on 22 May 2020. The reason given for the company”s closure was a direct result of COVID-19. Richard Sharman looks at the fallout from the company’s closure exactly seven days on.

Unfortunately, there have been many coach operators that have closed down during this pandemic, but SLG is by far the largest. Across all subsidiary companies, the Group employed 2,460 people and operated a fleet of 250 coaches through its three coach divisions Caledonian Holidays, National Holidays and  Shearings.

Private equity firm ownership followed by investment

SLGs recent history involves Lone Star Funds, founded in 1995, the private equity firm is based in Dallas, Texas and currently has a portfolio of 59 companies and has investments in a further 209. The firm seeks to invest in the commercial products, retail, and services sectors. It boasts 16 offices worldwide.

Lone Star Funds purchased Shearings Leisure Group in April 2016 and were quick to look at the acquired group and made its first purchase of Chesterfield-based the same month. Additionally, the group name was changed from Shearings Leisure Group to Specialist Leisure Group in June 2018 due to the growing diversity of the companies now operated.

Modernisation of brands, hotels and vehicles took place in the following years and by 2020 SLG owned the following brands:


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The coach fleet had seen constant investment, firstly with Setra coaches and then Mercedes-Benz Tourismo’s. At the point of the closure the group 250 coaches which were equally split between National Holiday and Shearing divisions, with the oldest coaches being the final Setra coaches built for the UK market.

The hotel division of SLG owned some significant hotels, in prominent locations:

Bay Hotels

  • Bay Dilkhusa Grand Hotel, Ilfracombe
  • Bay Carlton Hotel, Great Yarmouth
  • Bay Prince of Wales Hotel, Berkeley
  • Bay Great Western Hotel, Oban
  • Bay Highland Hotel, Strathpeffer
  • Bay Royal Whitby Hotel, Whitby
  • Bay Tarbet Hotel, Loch Lomond
  • Bay Broadway Park Hotel, Sandown
  • Bay Marina Hotel, Newquay
  • Bay Majestic Bournemouth Hotel, Bournemouth
  • Bay Eden Arms Hotel, Rushyford
  • Bay Majestic Eastbourne Hotel, Eastbourne
  • Bay Grand Hotel, Exmouth
  • Bay Marine Hotel, Llandudno
  • Bay Royal Weymouth Hotel, Weymouth
  • Bay Caledonian Hotel, Fort William
  • Bay New Southlands Hotel, Scarborough
  • Bay Libertys Hotel, Blackpool
  • Bay Norbreck Hotel, Scarborough
  • Bay Torbay Hotel, Torquay
  • Bay Esplanade Hotel, Paignton
  • Bay St Ives Bay Hotel, St Ives
  • Bay Tor Park Hotel, Torquay
  • Bay Waverley Castle Hotel, Melrose
  • Bay Burlington Hotel, Eastbourne
  • Bay County Hotel, Llandudno
  • Bay Valley of Rocks Hotel, Lynton
  • Bay Beresford Hotel, Newquay
  • Bay Strathmore Hotel, Morecambe
  • Bay Savoy Hotel, Bournemouth
  • Bay Grand Atlantic Hotel, Weston-super-Mare

Coast & Country Hotels

  • The George Hotel, Chollerford
  • The Imperial Exmouth Hotel, Exmouth
  • The Golden Lion, Hunstanton
  • The Derwentwater Hotel, Keswick
  • The Pitlochry Hydro Hotel, Pitlochry
  • The Portpatrick Hotel, Portpatrick
  • The Ship & Castle Hotel, St Mawes
  • The Charlecote Pheasant, Stratford upon Avon
  • The Imperial Tenby, Tenby
  • The Grand Atlantic, Weston-super-Mare
  • The Windermere Hotel, Windermere

Country Living Hotels

  • Country Living Lansdown Grove, Bath
  • Country Living St George, Harrogate

Whilst the Wallace Arnold name has not been used on the group’s coaches for many years, it was still very much an important and respected brand. SLG maintained Wallace Arnold Travel branches in Bradford, Castleford, Chesterfield, Halifax, Hillsborough, Huddersfield, Rotherham, Wakefield and York. SLG also opened ‘travel shop pods’ at Morrison Supermarkets in Brampton, Barnsley; Doncaster, Mansfield, Morley and Pontefract. All travel shops sold holidays for SLG brands as well as offering holidays with third-party tour operators.

The history of SLG and its predecessor companies is a long one, which was summarised by CBWs Andy Izatt in September 2018 and can be read here:

Going into administration and the weeks before it

By 27 April, just over a month since the lockdown had started, SLG was in talks with a number of potential buyers in an attempt to stave off administration. Sky News suggested that SLG was working with accountancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) to attempt to secure a future for the business. An insider was cited as saying that SLG and its controlling shareholder, the US-based private equity investor Lone Star Funds, were hopeful of finding a buyer imminently and that if a solvent sale proves impossible, a pre-pack administration may be another option, to enable parts of the business to re-emerge under the control of another owner. It was believed that there were a number of parties showing interest in acquiring the company.

By Wednesday 20 May, SLG websites started announcing that no new bookings will be taken until further notice. The company explained it had decided as a consequence of the ‘significant impact of COVID-19 on the company and the uncertainty around government-imposed travel restrictions and deliverability.’

By the afternoon of Friday 22 May, a further update had been posted with the unfortunate news that the whole group had entered into administration. The statement on the group’s website read: ‘All tours, cruises, holidays and hotel breaks booked with the Specialist Leisure Group have been cancelled and will not be rescheduled. The Specialist Leisure Group operated several businesses that sold holidays and other travel arrangements under the following brand names, which have all ceased to trade, due to the impact of COVID-19.’

Chief Executive of SLG Richard Calvert said: “This is a terribly sad day for employees, customers and commercial partners of the Specialist Leisure Group and its subsidiaries which have entered into administration. The effects COVID-19 on our 117-year old company and the wider travel industry have been devastating.

“In the most trying of circumstances, over these past few months, we have thought tooth and nail to save the group and the jobs of our loyal employees. It’s heartbreaking that the required finance could not be secured.”

Reactions from the industry and trade bodies

Reactions to the demise of SLG were almost immediate, with many in the industry showing support for those who lost their jobs and disbelief that such a long-standing company had been lost.

Sales Director of The UK Holiday Group, Harold Burke said: “When you see all those amazing brands and know some of the inspirational people behind them you understand what a significant loss this is to our industry. Knowing some of the characters involved I am confident they will return stronger than ever and ready to play a part in the new beginning for our industry.”

Managing Director of Alfa Travel, Emma Russell said: “We have just heard the news tonight that the Specialist Leisure Group, which includes Shearings and National Holidays, has gone into administration. Today marks a truly sad day for the coaching industry at the loss of these iconic brands and our heartfelt sympathies go out to all those who are affected. Our thoughts go out to their employees and loyal customers who do not deserve to find themselves in this position. These are truly unprecedented times for everyone involved in the travel industry.”

Other coach holiday operators were also quick to reassure customers that they had no connection with SLG, such as Leger Holidays, who issued the following statement: “In the light of the unfortunate demise of our competitor, Shearings, last week, we would like to issue this note to give all our customers some reassurance about the financial stability of Leger Holidays.

“Firstly, Leger Holidays is in no way connected to the Shearings group of companies which went by the name of Specialist Leisure Group and included other brands such as Caledonian and National Holidays. We are and have been for over 30 years, independently owned by the Henry family and the management team.

“Secondly, Leger holidays is financially secure and profitable. We operate with a totally different business model to the Shearings group, which directly owned many hotels and coaches meaning that, during the period of the COVID-19 crisis, they had a significant overhead which was a drain on their cash resources.

“Leger does not own any hotels, nor does it own any coaches – all of Leger’s coach fleet is owned by private coach operators. This means that, during this period of lockdown, we have been able to manage our resources efficiently.”

Leger Holidays also offered support for former Shearings customers: “To support everyone who had a confirmed booking with Shearings, we would like to offer a Super-low Deposit. From just £25pp deposit, you can secure your next holiday, with nothing more to pay until your final balance, due around 6 weeks before departure.”

Travel agents, such as North East-based Tates Travel, have been busy interacting with customers and arranging refunds: “Tate’s Travel would like to thank you all for your lovely messages. We all have fond memories of our holidays with National Holidays and Shearings.

“Our thoughts go to the lovely staff who have lost their jobs at such a difficult time, many had become our friends. Over 2,500 staff have lost their jobs and we want to let you know that we are thinking of you.

“We, at Tate’s Travel, have been working long hours over the bank holiday weekend and letters are on their way to our lovely clients with an update.

“If you booked through Tate’s Travel we will be submitting your claim and we have been working hard over the Bank Holiday to make sure we have all of the information ready to claim back your refund.

“We apologise in advance as this may take the bond company who is providing the refunds longer than usual as there are 64,000 bookings cancelled and due to Covid their staff are not allowed in their offices and are working from home until it is safe to return to their workplace.

“To finish, these are unprecedented times and for us a small family business it has been extremely difficult but we would like to thank you our loyal customers for your loyalty, patience and understanding. We value each and every one of you. Thank you.”

The Confederation of Passenger Transport’s Chief Executive Graham Vidler reacted by saying: “This is a sad day for all those involved with Shearings and the wider coach tourism industry, our immediate thoughts are with those employees who now face an uncertain future. Today’s events show the need for the Government to urgently step in and provide support to the wider coach tourism industry, during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has been lacking to date.

“Customers who have booked coach package tours with Shearings are protected by the Government-approved consumer protection scheme Bonded Coach Holidays (BCH). They will be contacted by the administrator who will inform them of how to make a claim.

“All coach operators providing coach package tours must have full consumer protection in place to comply with The Package Travel and Linked Travel Regulations 2018, which means that customers can have confidence that their money is safe.”

ABTA, the UK travel trade association for tour operators and travel agents, has estimated that the collapse of SLG has resulted in 64,000 cancelled holidays. Chief Executive, Mark Tanzer said: “This week the impact of the crisis has been highlighted with Specialist Leisure Group going into administration and thousands of travel industry colleagues losing their jobs. Two of the Group companies, Shearings and Wallace Arnold, were Members of ABTA and much-loved brands.

“It saddens me particularly this has come to pass after many weeks warning the Government that businesses were at risk, and I fear that Specialist Leisure Group will not be the last firm to fall because of the situation we find ourselves in if the Government fails to act.

“ABTA has repeatedly highlighted to the Government the urgent need for a coordinated strategy with additional support and clear communication to help companies and avoid significant job losses. We will remain steadfast in this task and continue to support Members and customers through the crisis with communications of our own.”

Employees in the Hull area have also been given a lifeline by the company that used to own National Holidays in the EYMS Group era, East Yorkshire now being owned by the Go-Ahead Group:

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250 coaches on the move

As I write this feature there has been a large number of reports of some of the fleet of 250 coaches on the motorway network, being moved from SLG depots and interchanges to safe storage facilities. This included the last coach to leave the Anlaby, Hull depot on the 28 May.

Sales Director of EvoBus, Jonathan Prime told CBW: “Only a percentage of the fleet belong to Mercedes-Benz Financial Services, the remainder belonging to various other finance companies.  Discussions are taking place as to how these vehicles will be remarketed.

“The news is devastating for the industry and especially for everyone directly affected by the closure of the company.  We worked very closely with members of the Shearings and National Holidays teams during the many years of our business partnership and our thoughts are with them and their families at this sad time.”

It is understood that the fleet consisted of the following vehicles at the time of going into administration:

National Holidays 33 Setra S415GT-HDs dating from 2013 to 2014, whilst 87 Mercedes-Benz Tourismo’s dating from 2015-2019 were operated.

The National Holiday fleet included 87 Mercedes-Benz Tourismo’s. RICHARD SHARMAN

Shearings operated 22 Setra S416GT-HDs from 2014, along with 136 Mercedes-Benz Tourismo’s dating from 2015-2019.

This brings the total number of vehicles believed to be operated to 250.

Given the current pandemic situation, demand for non-DDA vehicles is currently low. Although all vehicles from SLG will be Euro VI and well looked after, independent coach operators are often keen to purchase former National Holidays and Shearings vehicles as they have only been used on tour work and often driven by the same allocated driver from new.

The Caledonian Holidays fleet was operated by independent operators, such as this Plaxton Elite operated by Parks of Hamilton. RICHARD SHARMAN


The fate of the SLG brand names and assets now rests with the administrators

The disappearance of the National Holidays and Shearings brands is a truly sad one, although the joint administrators have now taken control, so we should know in the coming weeks and months if any part of SLG is able to be salvaged and sold on.

Joint Administrator, Sam Woodward, commented: “The Group has been significantly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic as all tours, trips and events have been cancelled and the hotels closed to the public, leading to a significant cash shortfall.

“The directors of the Group have been in discussions with a number of parties, seeking a going concern buyer for the business. Unfortunately, despite interest in the Group as a whole and in parts, no viable transaction structure was able to be agreed and, as a result, the Group was placed into Administration”

“Regrettably, the jobs of 2,460 employees, 2,207 of which were furloughed at the time of appointment, will now have to be made redundant. Approximately 70 employees will initially be retained to assist the Administrators in disposing of the assets and winding down the business.

“Our immediate priority is to advise and support those employees and customers that have been impacted by the Group’s insolvency.  We are making every effort to contact all customers, who have had their bookings cancelled as a result of the Administrations or COVID-19, with information to assist them in making a claim. Customers should be assured that claims do not need to be submitted immediately and refunds will continue to be accepted for up to six months.

“We will also be seeking to realise the remaining assets of the Group’s business for the benefit of creditors and we are therefore seeking offers from interested parties.”