The Interview: A Long day's journey into the sun for the king of the package holiday world

Peter Long Chief executive of First Choice
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The Independent Online

Not that he can do anything abut the misery engulfing holidaymakers using Heathrow. Nor, for that matter, can British Airways, which has been caught up in a bizarre dispute about the preparation of the airline's rubberised ready meals. Luckily, First Choice doesn't rely on BA to transport its customers so this latest travel crisis isn't costing him any sleep.

"I'm going down to my boat this morning to potter about a bit and have some lunch on board," Mr Long said yesterday. A villa in the hills near Puerto Pollensa offers him and his family peace and quiet while the rest of the island rocks around the clock.

But surely he should be dragging his wife and three sons off on one of First Choice's Slovenian whitewater rafting trips or hauling spinnakers up and down on one of his Sunsail voyages. If we all have to do it, why doesn't he?

"I have to visit all our new destinations and potential destinations. Typically, I'm visiting seven to eight destinations a year seeing what our customers might like, what they might want us to offer. Staying close to the holiday itself, that's a very important part of my job. That's all part of it, travelling, which I enjoy."

Given that some of the new destinations First Choice will be flying to next year include Brazil and the west coast of Mexico, around Puerto Vallarta, his forthcoming schedule sounds like the sort of work most of us would do for free.

Envy him all you like but in 1996, when Mr Long became chief executive, First Choice was the minnow among package-holiday companies. It was carting people off to cramped dwellings on the Costa del Sol. It was a pretty dull business earning pretty dull profit margins well below the industry average. "It was what you would describe as a 'commodity' offering."

Not that anyone knew it at the time, but the internet was about to arrive on our desktops and the likes of Lastminute.com would leave margins on cheap and cheerful package holidays even skinnier.

"If you just want a flight and you just want some simple, value-for-money accommodation you can do that yourself on the internet. Tour operators are not adding much value and that's the part of the market that we said we didn't want to be in."

The share price when he began reshaping the business was 57p, or a company value of £300m. Now it is 193p, valuing the business at £1.09bn. The past two years have been particularly strong for the company's share price as MyTravel imploded and Thomas Cook and Thomson grappled with life under their respective new German owners.

Mr Long has seen travel companies collapse from the inside having run Intasun, one of the businesses of Harry Goodman's International Leisure Group which went bust as a result of the 1991 Gulf war.

Having shrugged off the impact of terrorism in 2001, then the Sars virus and the general economic torpor, the company has emerged with a collection of brands and specialist holidays that the stock market values highly.

Holidays just don't go out of fashion and neither, it seems, do they suffer from the vagaries of consumers' discretionary spending.

Mr Long told shareholders at June's half-yearly results that forward summer bookings were up 5 per cent and sales in the traditionally quiet first six months had raced ahead 17 per cent to £915m, boding well for the company's full year .

First Choice still does its fair share of cheapo package trips and its 2wentys brand serves the Ibiza brigade but what excites investors are the more adventurous trips it organises.

"In 1998, we bought Unijet which gave us a good entrée into the long-haul-flights market. Then we bought Hayes & Jarvis and we could focus on how we could find holidays that were more exclusive to First Choice."

Hayes & Jarvis is a Kuoni-style long-haul tour operator to places such as Australia, the Maldives and Africa. It typifies Mr Long's preference for selling holidays that involve a bit more than remaining mainly stationary on a beach.

First Choice is now the world's biggest sailing holidays business and the leader in "inland waterway" trips - if canal holidays float your boat.

"What's fundamentally changed in our industry is that customers don't want to do the same thing. They want to be more active. The customers actually want to dip in and out of different types of experience. We are all more adventurous."

The trouble is much of modern travel is so unromantic. Endless security, long waits then herded into cattle class for a vein-throbbing 10-hour flight. And then there is the return flight.

"We're not sitting on our laurels. In 2009 we're taking delivery of the Boeing 787s, the Dreamliners. They will offer much greater in-flight comfort, more personal space. These are state-of-the-art aircraft." With an 8,000-mile range, Mr Long will be able to fly us direct to San Francisco, which does appeal, or the west coast of Australia.

He ispleased with the company's existing fleet of 32 Boeing 767s, which are fitted out with the nicer Boeing 777 interior and 33 inches of legroom in its standard cabin. "The key criteria in flying long haul is whether or not it's comfortable," he said. "What we've got is a better comfort level and more legroom than British Airways and Virgin."

Mr Long will be heading home this week - Heathrow chaos allowing - to put away the suntan lotion at the end of another pleasant break in Majorca. Soon enough, he will no doubt be reaching for his skis and heading for the Alps. More research, more work. Sounds terrible.

Travel bug

Age: 53

Pay: £1.43m including £560,000 basic salary

Education: Price's grammar school in Hampshire, then studied for a higher national diploma in business studies. Qualified as an accountant with the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants

Career: Gained accounting qualification at Thomas Tilling, an engineering firm. Joined International Leisure Group in 1984 and ran Intasun before forming Sun World, later sold to Thomas Cook for £40m. Joined First Choice in 1996.

Family: Married with three sons

Interests: Sailing, waterskiing

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