Turning 2020 around

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Andrew Sowry – along with his former colleague and now business partner, Patricia Parry – went from losing their jobs at Shearings to launching their own business a few months later. Peter Jackson tells their story and finds out more about their new venture

This has been a year to remember for the coach industry, though sadly for all the wrong reasons. As much as all of us would like to forget 2020 when ‘21 rolls around, this year has left a mark on the sector that nobody can ignore. Among the high-profile casualties of Covid earlier this year was Specialist Leisure Group (SLG) and its subsidiary Shearings Holidays, a century-old staple of the sector.

By far the largest coach holiday operation in the UK, SLG encompassed – besides Shearings – National Holidays, Caledonian Travel and the Wallace Arnold retail travel agencies. Not forgetting the Bay and Coast & Country Hotel brands which were an integral part of the SLG umbrella. All in, 2,460 members of staff were on its books when the administrators came in.

Among them were Andrew Sowry and Patricia Parry. “Tricia and I were colleagues at Shearings Holidays – she was there around 17 years and I was merely a baby at three and a half years,” Andrew began. “I was one of the European Product Managers there and Tricia had covered roles in the UK and Europe, latterly being responsible for river and ocean cruises.

Shearings Brochure Launch: From the left – Andrew Sowry, Lucy Osborne, Louise Mason, Patricia Parry, Kathryn Morris

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[/wlm_nonmember] [wlm_ismember] “Prior to that, we’d both been in the industry in other companies. Before my time at Shearings, I spent nearly 10 years in wholesale at Greatdays, while Tricia used to work for Cresta Holidays before she joined Shearings, so we have over 30 years in the industry between us.

“I read an article back in March – not long after we’d gone into lockdown and when we were still part of Shearings and SLG – which said that the future of the product manager role could be on a freelance and bespoke basis. It was an interesting article, and it just stuck in the back of my mind.

“We weren’t at all looking to leave Shearings at the time, but of course the company ended up going into administration. At that point, what I’d read a couple of months earlier came to the forefront of my mind, and I started mulling it over. Job opportunities in the travel industry weren’t exactly in great supply, so we decided to look into it a bit more seriously and put a plan together.

“After discussions, Tricia and I decided that we’d like to set up our own venture. As I said, there were no real opportunities in the travel industry at the time, and we believe we have a great business model that can benefit coach and tour operators.”

The complete package

I asked Andrew what he felt made 2020 Travel Partners different to other companies already established in the sector. “We don’t really know of anybody else that’s working as we’re proposing to work,” he said. “Obviously you’ve got wholesalers who do something similar, but the way that we work is different and brings added benefits to the operator.

“Operators like Shearings had enough manpower to do everything in-house – there were multiple product managers looking after Europe, the UK and river and ocean cruising. But if companies are having to make redundancies, they may not have the manpower to do all of it themselves anymore.

“There are alternatives out there for operators, like wholesalers. They act as the middle man and sell coach tours with a markup. What we’re proposing is to work for a daily, weekly or monthly fee (depending on how big the project is), contracting directly for the operator. That means we will effectively be an ‘extended arm’ of their company; we will contract everything in their name, we will set everything up for them, and they will then get the price that we receive from the supplier with no markup. This approach gives the operator more flexibility on their selling prices and gives them the opportunity to increase their margins. We think the savings we make on their buying rate will more than offset the fee we charge for the work, saving the operator money in the long run.

“That’s from a contracting perspective, but we’re not just offering that. Ideally, operators would take our whole package: we can plan their tour programme for them, we can contract all the accommodation and the tours, we can do the itineraries for them and we can even do web and brochure copy. We used to do paginations for Shearings brochures, so we can help with the planning and layout of your brochures too. Even things like open days, sales events and brochure launches – we can go along to them with the product knowledge and speak directly to customers. Alternatively, we can also train an operator’s own staff so that they know what they’re selling, whether it be hotels or destinations.

“Another area that we think operators are going to be focusing on more – given the way the industry is at the minute – is special seasonal campaigns. Instead of having a set brochure like the operators have traditionally had, it may be that they have to switch to doing smaller mailers or leaflets for seasonal campaigns. We can help out with those on an ad-hoc basis.”

Inside Specialist Leisure Group’s former office at Wigan Pier Business Park. ANDY IZATT

‘It’s what we love’

“We’ve had a couple of people say to us ‘it’s very brave of you to launch a new business in this day and age,” said Andrew. “But we thought about it for a while, and with the lack of opportunities out there – and more and more companies going out of business – it seemed like the best way forward. Travel is what we know, it’s what we’ve done for all our working lives. It’s what we want to do and it’s what we love doing. Our startup costs are relatively low – we don’t require any office space, we’re both working from home – and we live within a few miles of each other in Manchester, so we can get together when Covid restrictions allow us to.

“The initial feedback from both suppliers and potential customers has been that the contacts we’ve got within the industry will stand us in good stead. Some of the potential customers we’ve got are ex-colleagues of ours, while others are regular contacts we have from going on workshops and to events such as World Travel Market with them. They’re all people that we know and that know us, and hopefully they’ll trust that we can do a good job for them.

“The travel industry is a worldwide industry; the part we’ve been in though – primarily the coaching side of it – is relatively small and you tend to see the same people every time you go to trade shows and events or on FAM trips.

“We’ve had some really productive Zoom chats with suppliers we’ve used in the past about how we can work together – we’ve got another one today with a hotelier in Belgium! It’s good to get talking to them again. We spoke to an agent in Holland the other day, who both Tricia and I have known for many years – it’s good to see their faces again and get back to talking business”.

Getting the word out

“The vast majority of what we’ve done so far to promote the company has either been through social media or industry publications like CBW,” Andrew continued. “The Travel Trade Gazette did a brief article for us, for example. Tricia has spent time contacting other publications and newspapers to try and get the word out there. We even made the BBC national news recently in an article on life after Shearings and the positivity of starting our own company.

“We’ve both been building contacts on LinkedIn – adding coach and tour operators to our network, as well as suppliers. We’ve started to get posts out on Facebook and Twitter as well.

“We’re assuming there are going to be more ‘virtual’ shows taking place over the next few months, so we’ll aim to attend as many of them as we can too. There are other events too, like the Accor Hotels Workshop (which is usually held every February), which we hope might be able to go ahead. In the meantime, we’ll continue our Zoom meetings with hoteliers and suppliers to discuss what we can offer, and initial feedback has been positive.

“We’ve also set up a database of potential customers. We’ve checked out their websites to find out what kind of programmes they’re doing now and whether they do European or just UK tours, so that we know what they might need from us if we work together.

“We’ve got a few irons in the fire at the minute. We were contacted by a company in Yorkshire recently that has a specific requirement for Halal catering, and they’re looking at setting up a tour programme in the UK for the first time. That’s where we come into play, and we can do all the groundwork for them.

“They’re an example of a company that doesn’t have tour experience – they’ve previously done day trips or coach hire for groups. On the flipside, there may be operators out there with 50 years’ experience who just don’t have the time to plan a tour programme. They’ll be able to tell us, ‘I want Lake Garda, I want Tuscany, I want Belgium,’ and we’ll just get on and do it.

“When you’re working directly for an operator like we did at Shearings, you have a lot more control over contracting. You have the experience to know what tours work and you’re not scared to introduce new product ideas.

Historically, a lot of tours were repeated from previous years because they sold well, which of course makes things much more predictable.

“We think, based on our background and range of experience, we can take on any kind of project.”

Looking ahead

Thinking to the future, Andrew says the fledgling business has the potential to grow in numerous directions. “Primarily, we’re concentrating on the coach market to begin with as it’s where we have the most experience,” he explained. “But there are no boundaries on travel type; if there are operators out there that just do an air programme, we can contract their ground arrangements or provide web/brochure copy.

“This is very much long-term development but we’ve discussed having a team of product managers on our books – and allocating people to the jobs that best fit their experience and background.

“Hopefully Tricia and I starting 2020 Travel Partners will bring a little bit of positivity to the industry and give hope to some people that there is always a way forward.”

To find out more about 2020 Travel Partners, visit 2020travelpartners.co.uk or call 07979 818762 or 07979 818763.