Travel boss forecasts sunnier times ahead despite industry gloom

Business Profile: The head of First Choice is no deskbound executive: his car is his office and he spends one week in five living out of a suitcase
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The Independent Online

For a man yet to take his summer holiday, Peter Long doesn't look in need of a break. But then surely life is just one big holiday when you run a travel company?

The suspiciously tanned chief executive of First Choice is quick to admit that the best perk of selling package holidays is the travelling. "The travel's great because it's legitimate, it's part of your job," he says, in typical laconic fashion.

Which is just as well when you spend one week in five living out of a suitcase, in search of The Next Big Destination. "Someone's got to do it. It sounds a bit more glamorous than it is," he insists.

After almost two decades selling package holidays, the 51-year-old Mr Long should have a good feel for what makes a top beach towel spot. He is busy negotiating deals with Croatian hoteliers for summer 2005, although he says Brazil, South Africa and Bulgaria are all on his radar screen.

Considering the aptly named Mr Long (he is tall and lanky) says he only entered the travel industry "by default", he has made a good name for himself. He has transformed First Choice from a "basket case" in the mid-Nineties to one of the best-run travel companies in Europe.

Trained as an accountant, Mr Long started out in the more prosaic world of construction. He swapped BTR, now Invensys, for the buzz of ILG in 1984, where he ran Intasun until Harry Goodman's empire went bust in spectacular fashion during the 1991 Gulf War. "I've never looked back since because I love the business," he says.

Mr Long has certainly been put through his paces during the past few months. The fall-out from the 11 September attacks brought one rival - MyTravel - to its knees and destabilised the entire industry. "In terms of challenges, this has been the toughest in the nearly 20 years that I've been in this industry. It's the length of the uncertainty we've seen," he laments. He ascribes First Choice's success to its flexible business model - it rents, rather than owns, expensive assets such as hotels and aircraft, and it chases margins, not sales, higher.

The company, which started life as Owners Abroad in 1973, has spent the past five years expanding its "specialist holidays" division. If a week in the Spanish sun sounds tame, holidaymakers can choose any number of more energetic pursuits, from scuba-diving in the Red Sea to mountain-biking in the Pyrenees. Mr Long paints a picture of the ideal First Choice customer as someone dipping in and out of different experiences. They would say: "Yeah, I want to go to a villa with my family for two weeks in August but actually, I wouldn't mind a weekend break with my wife, and I really haven't climbed one of these mountains. I fancy doing that with one of my pals. And we're all going to go off skiing together and, yeah, wouldn't it be nice if I learnt to sail?"

The company has also been moving away from offering "generic" one and two-star accommodation, creating more of a "club" atmosphere in the exclusive hotels it sources. Not the "in your face enforced entertainment" of a Club Med, he quickly interjects, something far subtler.

Either way, it seems to be working. The group coped with the ravages of the war in Iraq, even managing to narrow its first-half losses (travel companies make all their money over the summer).

Although Friday's profit warning from MyTravel pointed to a tougher summer than the industry had been expecting, there was no hint of concern from him when we had met just one day earlier. The picture of calm, sitting in shirtsleeves in his PR firm's City offices, he brushed off a suggestion that the hottest summer since 1976 was taking its toll on the so-called "lates market", claiming that the weather had little influence on booking habits. "When the sun is shining it gets people in the holiday mood and when it's miserable they are definitely very happy that they've booked their holiday in the sunshine, so it tends to work both ways." He said business had "held up very strongly" since the beginning of May, when bookings surged 15 per cent. "Trading has been consistent," he added.

Mr Long has great hopes for First Choice, claiming that despite the turmoil he has "never felt better" about the company. "It's the tip of the iceberg, as we see it. I think we're probably at the most exciting phase in our whole industry."

After the price battles of the Eighties and the consolidation of the Nineties, he thinks the Noughties will be remembered as the decade that the travel industry went "global". What this does not mean is that he is keen to bulk up the business for the sake of it. "Would we want to get involved in a big deal that takes us more into mainstream? Absolutely not."

Despite having a Maltese birth certificate - his father was in the Navy and he was shunted around as a child, growing up in Cornwall and Hampshire - Mr Long says he didn't travel much before joining the industry. In fact, he had never taken a package holiday before working for ILG. He married young, at 21, and wasted no time in starting a family, so holidays usually meant a few weeks in a rain-soaked Cornish caravan. He isn't much of a package holidaymaker these days either, with the exception of the odd skiing trip over Christmas.

"We have a secret little bolt-hole in Majorca, which is a house that we bought six years ago [with a windfall from selling Sunworld, a Spanish tour operator he started with a friend]. That's base camp for everybody," he says. He will be there now, barely three days into a three-week break which will undoubtedly find him indulging one of his many sporting passions, water-skiing. In case I think him lax, for disappearing during the company's busiest stretch, he says daily sales figures will be texted through on his mobile: "If I don't like them, I'll put a call in." Ah, the mobile. The can't-do-without accessory for the man who is renowned for not having a desk. "I absolutely don't have a desk," he says, stretching back and tucking his long arms behind his head. "I actually have a mobile office, which is the back of my car. I like to be out in the businesses, meeting the teams. If I can't do face-to-face, I'm on the phone." Oddly, for a man who claims to be so obsessed by sport (he loves rugby and has just bought two season tickets for Chelsea) and keeping fit (he has a gym in his house), he hasn't been on one of his company's "soft adventure" holidays. He fancies taking his youngest son, who is 17, on "one of those aggressive trekking holidays" at some stage, though, and plans to join in some of his gap year. "I'm reasonably fit, so maybe Kilimanjaro," he muses.

If the war on terrorism has anything to do with next year's booking patterns, Mt Kili won't be the only mountain he'll be climbing during the 12 months or so.

PETER LONG MAN ON THE MOVE

Age: 51

Title: Chief executive, First Choice Holidays

Salary: £846,000

Career: Started out as an accountant in the construction industry. Worked for Sir Owen Green's BTR (now part of Invensys). Joined ILG in 1984, where he ran Intasun until the group collapsed in the early Nineties. Started Sunworld, a Spanish tour operator, which he sold for £40m to Thomas Cook. Joined First Choice in 1996, promoted to managing director after only six weeks.

Interests: Watching rugby (has high hopes for England in the World Cup in Australia), Chelsea, skiing - on water and snow - working out and family (married with three sons).

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